'Little Me' is the musicalisation of a cod autobiography by Patrick Dennis. In it, Belle Poitrine (French for ‘Great Tits!’ – what makes you think it was written by a gay man?!) tells of her rise and rise to acquire money, culture and social status in order to be worthy of her true love, blue-blooded Noble Eggleston. On the way she meets a variety of men, all of whom have the unfortunate habit of dying on her, with a little help.
The musical version uses this to string together what is effectively a series of sketches built around each man – the stingy banker, Mr Pinchley, the French nightclub singer Val du Val, the Russian Prince Cherney, the tyrannical film director Otto Schnitzler, the dumb doughboy Fred Poitrine. As you can tell from the names, the humour is broad, and the whole has a cartoon-like quality. The USP of the show is that all the men are played by the same actor, a star turn requiring an impressive array of comic and musical talents. In the previous London revival it was played deliriously by Russ Abbot.
Abbot’s shoes are more than adequately filled by Daniel Cane. His challenge is to convey all the OTT humour in a tiny space. Vaudevillian projection which worked so well in the Prince of Wales Theatre would overwhelm here. He rises to the challenge magnificently, with a wonderfully dry delivery, impeccable comic timing, gifted physical clowning, a more than adequate voice, and some nifty footwork. He has the rarer gift, too, of characterisation in song. Mr Cane is a scream, and if his performance doesn’t pick up an award or two this year, I’ll eat my Bic.
He is ably matched by Emma Odell as Belle, who manages to parody the naïve small-town quality of Belle without ever losing our sympathy. It’s nicely judged, and well sung.
They have a lot to work with. Cy Coleman’s score is tuneful and jazz-inflected, although lacking in obvious hits, with the exception of ‘Real Live Girl’; it pays scant attention to the period in which it is set (1913 – 36), and it doesn’t matter a damn because it is all pure Coleman, and that’s more than good enough. His lyricist Carolyn Leigh is not quite in the same class – she’s no Dorothy Fields, who wrote ‘Sweet Charity’ with Coleman – but her words have a snap and a bite to them which holds our attention.But the great glory of the show is the book, by Neil Simon. It is quite simply one of the funniest ever penned for Broadway. Only ‘A Funny Thing Happened…’ and ‘Lucky Stiff’ come anywhere near. Simon’s humour often has a sourness and a rage behind it; he’s a perfect exemplar of Howard Jacobson’s apercu that all Jewish humour exists in the shadow of defeat and despair. But not here. This is light, and sweet and silly and slightly surreal – the satiric elements are held firmly in check: “I got you this for your sixteenth birthday” – “Just what I wanted. A set of matching Trust Funds.” On the way we manage to encompass a ‘murderess-as-vaudeville star’ section (which must have influenced ‘Chicago’) and a hilarious Titanic parody. Brendan Matthew’s nifty direction manages to pile on the sight gags to match the verbals.
In some ways this is a slightly odd musical. There’s no big number to close the first half, or even to open or close the second. The title song is a wisp of a thing thrown away in Act Two, while the eleven-o’clock number takes place rather earlier. There’s little development, no moments of truth, and the interview with the older Belle which threads through the show and frames the action is a slightly ponderous affair which slows things down. For these reasons ‘Little Me’ will never be quite in the top drawer of musicals. But this talented and energetic company has given it everything they’ve got, and you couldn’t ask for a fizzier, funnier evening in the theatre. It deserves a transfer.