In the week of the televised US presidential debate, the resonances of Call Me Madam are remarkable: an incumbent Democrat president with his back to the electoral wall and looking anxious about a second full term is challenged by a slick Republican rival who’s proving popular with a soundbite. European economies are in crisis and as a reward for her cash donations, he appoints a wealthy heiress and airhead to a foreign embassy.

It could only be more topical if Barack Obama made Paris Hilton ambassador to Greece.

Satirising the way post-war America insisted on ‘helping’ other countries by throwing money at them whether they needed it or not, Call Me Madam is a true story. Ahead of the 1952 election in which he was defeated by Dwight Eisenhower, President Harry S. Truman chose as US Ambassador to Luxembourg one of Washington’s foremost party-givers and campaign fund-raisers: the buxom heiress to a steel fortune, Perle Reid Mesta. She served four years, and it was hardly a pivotal diplomatic job, but she featured later in the Watergate testimony about political appointments being traded for cash.

Richard Nixon, who had been Eisenhower’s Veep, told the enquiry “Perle wasn’t sent to Luxembourg because she had big bosoms. Perle Mesta went to Luxembourg because she had made a good contribution”.

The role of Ambassador Mrs Sally Adams was designed around the unique talents and unrestrained vocal power of Broadway’s biggest star Ethel Merman: in fact Irving Berlin wrote only four songs in the whole show in which she wasn’t personally featured front and centre. Latterly it’s been the preserve of any number of statuesque mature actresses from a creditable Tyne Daly (Mary Beth from TV’s Cagney and Lacey) in the Broadway concert version to a frankly terrible Noele Gordon after she was dropped from Crossroads.

In Michael Strassen’s inviting and minimal production, his bold move is to cast a younger and more conventionally attractive Sally: Lucy Williamson has all the vocal power but uses its strength selectively in a varied and engaging characterization. With her conversationally casual delivery and lipsticked pout she plays it much closer to Judy Garland and you can see why she made such a fine standby for Tracie Bennett in End of the Rainbow.

It’s Williamson’s show, but the ensemble work hard and after a shaky start and some muddied diction in the opening number, the support is universally strong. Sally’s press attaché Kenneth falls in love with the local princess, and Leo Miles decorates their love duet “It’s A Lovely Day Today” with unforced charm and an exceptionally fine tenor voice, and is a perfect foil for Williamson in the traditionally show-stopping counterpoint of “You’re Just In Love”, which again breaks new ground for the way it’s staged.

Sally’s love interest is the dashing Lichtenburg Prime Minister Cosmo Constantine: Gavin Kerr has the bearing, but since he’s an actor who doesn’t sing, the romance is dampened and his performance feels wooden against the warmth and wit of Williamson’s love-struck ambassador.

Call Me Madam has many dance-related songs: “Washington Square Dance”, “Something to Dance About” and “Dance to the Music of the Ocarina” are reasonably well executed, but Mark Smith’s choreography is neither period pastiche nor modern invention and doesn’t compare with recent Union successes like Bells Are Ringing or Dames at Sea.

Although maybe not Berlin’s finest, the score is soaring and lush and despite the ‘chamber’ feel of the production, it felt unfortunate to set it for only one piano. Although musical director Ross Leadbeter played manfully, you longed for a couple of other instruments to enrich the mix.

Strassen stilled the action at an isolated moment when, hearing an aircraft pass overhead, the Lichtenburg population gazes skyward as if anticipating a German air raid. For such a slightly-plotted musical confection, this seemed surplus to requirements, but also suggested that there might be more to the show than has previously been explored.

Date reviewed: Friday 5th October 2012
Image © Sam Mackenzie Armstrong

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.