Watching Robert Lindsay in "Me and My Girl," a hoary English musical comedy that came to the new and unimpressive but comfortable Marquis last evening, one was reminded of all the great comedians of the past whose presence alone was enough to please a less-demanding generation of theatergoers.
Without Lindsay, "Me and My Girl" would be worthless. With him, it's a dancing thing - at least it is when this slight, attractive, airborne and astonishingly versatile entertainer is onstage, which he is for most of the time.
To give you an idea: I never imagined I'd have to endure again "The Lambeth Walk," the idiotically jolly hit number of this 1937 show which resurfaced last year in London (and is still on view there). But with Lindsay leading the entire cast in it for the splashy first-act finale it does radiate good cheer.
And jollity - of the British variety - bubbles all night long. Even the one or two sentimental ballads seem ready to burst into a silly giggle at any moment.
The star (and I tend to think of "Me and My Girl" as a one-man show in spite of the large cast) is remarkable in everything he does - in every eccentric dance step, every graceful one, every grimace, every pratfall, every deft handling of props. He is immense.
The show, though of later vintage and with additions including a "My Fair Lady" joke, essentially is in the format of a 1920s' American musical comedy. Lindsay plays a cockney who, as a result of a youthful indiscretion by the late Duke of Hareford, turns out to be heir to the old man's estate.
And there's the usual compliment of cohorts. A gold-digging society girl (Jane Summerhays) sets her cap, and everything else, for Lindsay. The elderly duchess (Jane Connell) tries to get him to give up his Lambeth girl (Maryann Plunkett) and become a gentleman. And the duchess' long-time admirer, a knight (George S. Irving) sides with our hero. The ending is as casual, and boisterous, as everything else in this giddy entertainment, but once again here comes Lindsay to wrap it up.
Within the limits imposed on them by the foolish book and insistently sunny songs, the entire cast performs engagingly under the direction of Mick Ockrent.
Ockrent, who is responsible for some of the book's revamping as well, moves the nonsense along with the speed (though it's a long show) and directness of a George Abbott. Sets, costumes and lighting are of a time-honored musical-comedy brightness and colorfulness, with a couple of moody moments, including a rush of fog, for contrast.
The orchestra, under Stanley Lebowsky, pipes briskly and merrily along. And Gillian Gregory's dance numbers (into whose routines Charleston steps crop up) are simple, straightforward, unison efforts - and rightfully so. Both acts, incidentally, open with a tableau, again as in old times.
So "Me and My Girl" is really nothing more than a vehicle - but the bright new Broadway star named Robert Lindsay keeps it aloft most of the time with the awesome finesse of a master juggler.
A really terrific new English musical, "Me and My Girl," and a truly mediocre new theater, the Marquis, opened shop last night, and both are welcome - the show obviously more than the theater.
First, to get it over with, how mediocre is the theater? Well, once inside this sad-sack replacement for Broadway's lost Morosco, the old Helen Hayes, and the not particularly lamented Bijou, the situation is not all that ghastly.
The atmosphere of the auditorium proves clinically institutional, but the front curtain is imaginative, and although the stage seems a little small, the sight lines are excellent.
Unfortunately, to get into the auditorium you have to pass through the bowels of what is conceivably the world's ugliest hotel, the Marriott Marquis, and getting in or out of the theater - God preserve it from fire! - is a pain in the neck.
But to happier matters, How new and how terrific is the show, "Me and My Girl," that is triumphantly raising its curtain?
Well, it's not that new! Indeed, let me confess my own sentimental interest in "Me and My Girl," for in London, in 1938 (yeah, that's right, 1938) it had the dubious distinction of being the very first musical I ever saw.
I loved it then - almost pre-natally, of course - and I love it now.
And let me say - for a child's memory never lies even if it sometimes elaborates the truth - that its new star, a young English classic actor, Robert Lindsay, is even better, although a lot different, than the great Cockney comic Lupino Lane, who, half a century ago, originated this archetypal British musical.
The show itself is a honey, the kind of show that once gave Broadway a good name. It has humor, music, dancing, charm, wit, and a deft expertise that takes your heart away. Yes, I loved it, I loved it immoderately and totally, without reservation.
Seeing it in London last season, I had certain, unspoken, doubts as to whether it could survive the transatlantic sea-change. But it has more than survived, it has apparently flourished in the sea breezes, and looks even happier here than there.
The present "Me and My Girl" was never a straightforward revival of the Lupino Lane hit, but rather more an imaginative reconstruction of the original in something of the Broadway manner of the famous "No, No, Nanette" some 15 years ago.
The book had to be discovered - it had virtually been lost - and slightly amended. The music by Noel Gay, one of the most important English pop composers of his period, has been amplified by a few numbers outside the original score, such as his great banjo-song "Leaning on a Lamppost," originally written for the toothy Lancashire comedian, George Formby.
Also this latest time round the show has been tightened up a little for Broadway, with even the addition of a few judicious American jokes - such as a witty and forgivably anachronistic reference to "My Fair Lady" - while the Broadway cast is altogether superior to its London counterpart.
The story of a Cockney costermonger Bill Snibson who inherits the title and fortunes of the Earl of Hareford, subject to his ability to convince the will's aristocratically snooty executors of his suitability, has a Cinderella plus Pygmalion touch.
And Bill's determination not to give up his Lambeth girlfriend Sally Smith provides the musical with a further Pygmalion accent, and gives the show the happy charm of true love triumphant.
Happiness is the entire theme of the show; it runs through it like a cheekily ridiculous rainbow.
It can be felt in Gay's music, which is defiantly upbeat, and has a childlike simplicity totally different from the more sophisticated Broadway scores of the period, yet nowadays unaffectedly delightful.
The day of Gay's music has past and come again - and its music-hall melodiousness and down-home sentimentality appears to strike unexpected, hidden chords.
And happiness can be felt in the corny, yet oddly clever jokes (original book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber, with revisions to the book by Stephen Fry); the insouciance of the dancing (choreography by Gillian Gregory, but pure British music-hall tap); and, perhaps especially, the physicality of Mike Ockrent's confidently ingenious, pratfalling staging.
There is an ongoing tradition of physical clowning in English comedy (America first benefitted in it with Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel), and Lupino Lane, from the famous Grimaldi family, was a past master at its coarser niceties.
Lindsay, who has been seen here only as a leading Shakesperean actor on TV, and came to "Me and My Girl" straight from playing Hamlet, is a marvelous song and dance man.
His personality lights up the show, his timing is immaculate, his confidence unbounded, and his charm unforced.
To see Lindsay wiggling his brown bowler hat, leaping over chairs, mugging crazily with his ermined robe, is to become aware of a master comic craftsman.
Lupino Lane was never really an actor - by contrast, when Lindsay speaks of love, even comedy stands still to listen - but a consummate performer.
Lindsay is more elusive; he is playing a role, and the role is obviously not his own stage persona, as it was with his still unforgettable, and probably more original, predecessor.
If Lindsay has more real power, the American cast around him is also a delight. As his girl Sally, Maryann Plunkett sings like a lark, and is as sweetly appealing as Lindsay himself.
Two other sterling, seemingly irreplaceable performances come from Jane Connell and George S. Irving as the plot-pushing Executors of the Will; Nick Ullett and Jane Summerhays are fine as the aging juveniles; and Timothy Jerome enjoys a riotous Gilbert & Sullivan-like number as a riotous lawyer, "The Family Solicitor."
Add to all this elaborately amusing scenery by Martin Johns and amusing period costumes by Ann Curtis, and you have a show that should lift even the most downcast of spirits.
"Me and My Girl" is like a magnificent 50-year-old vintage port - handsomely aged, with a surprisingly firm body, and a most fragrant bouquet. It will come perfect after dinner, and should prove, you are warned, unexpectedly intoxicating.
There is nothing more primal in the lexicon of musical comedy than the number in which the young hero declares his undying love for the woman of his dreams. About a half-hour into ''Me and My Girl,'' the restored 1937 English musical now on Broadway, that number is to be found in its most cliched form: every word, note and gesture collides with a civilization's collective memory of vintage stage and movie musicals.
Yet, astoundingly enough, one finds oneself wishing that the title song of ''Me and My Girl'' would never end. When the leading man, Robert Lindsay, croons and twirls his way through his romantic declaration, the audience is as enraptured as Maryann Plunkett, the fresh-faced heroine who eventually joins him for a delirious tap pas de deux on top of a banquet table. ''Me and My Girl'' - both the number and the show - has uncorked the innocence of the old-fashioned musical comedy so ingenuously that for once a theatergoer is actually sucked directly into that sunny past rather than merely suckered into nostalgia for it.
The sheer happiness at hand is less a tribute to the quality of the material - which is variously charming and inane between-the-wars fluff - than to the winning way in which it is unfurled. Better musicals than ''Me and My Girl'' have been revived in New York and London in recent years, but few have been as free of contemporary cynicism or camp in their staging. And few musicals of any kind on either side of the Atlantic have had a star to match Robert Lindsay. Known primarily as a serious actor before opening in the West End ''Me and My Girl'' revival 18 months ago - he was Edmund in the televised Olivier ''Lear'' - this slightly built performer at times recalls Kelly and Cagney. But there's nothing imitative in his virtuoso performance. Mr. Lindsay doesn't re-create the great song-and-dance clowns of this musical's era - he's the genuine item in his own right, miraculously discovered among the mere mortals of today.
His role is that of Bill Snibson, a Cockney cutup from Lambeth who is belatedly identified as the long-lost Earl of Hareford (family motto: ''Noblesse oblige'') and who must learn posh manners if he is to inherit his title and estate. Much of ''Me and My Girl'' is low-burlesque ''Pygmalion'': the vulgar, insolent Bill is forever affronting the snobbish swells who congregate at the Hampshire mansion that is his new-found family's country seat. Wearing a busker's checked suit, a brown bowler and a cigarette or two stashed behind his ears, Mr. Lindsay enters Hareford Hall swaggering, leering and sneering: he's willing to grab any gold pocket watch or large female breast left untended by its owner. When he isn't scandalizing the stiff butlers and triple-chinned dowagers, Bill likes to mock the household's deaf octogenarian in an obscene, improvised sign-language that, like Mr. Lindsay's entire performance, adds just the proper dash of vinegar to what might have been a vat of unadulterated mush.
Some actors keep audiences hanging on every word. The extraordinary Mr. Lindsay, who makes a nonstop charade of intricate vocal and physical details look relaxed, compels us to cherish his every syllable, wink and step. His subversive timing snares the laugh on each hoary pun, double entendre and malapropism. (Asked if he likes Kipling, Bill typically replies, ''I don't know - I've never kippled.'') The slapstick sequences - which require the star to play leapfrog with a seductress on a couch and to wrestle a royal robe and tiger rug to the floor -are full of surprising, daredevil pratfalls. As a singer, Mr. Lindsay captures the reedy vocal style of the 30's without falling into stylized parody; as a dancer, he's just as graceful gliding about a lamppost in debonair evening clothes as he is tapping up a vaudeville storm. Nor can one overlook this one-time Hamlet's acting: while his performance boasts more funny walks and quicksilver flashes of mimicry than some whole farces, it's never marred by star mannerisms or showiness and is always informed by an astringent wit.
In the West End, Mr. Lindsay seemed the only reason for visiting ''Me and My Girl'' - or such was the case at the performance I attended well into the run. That's not true of the New York staging, which inaugurates the new and, for a modern musical house, surprisingly snug Marquis Theater. The Broadway ''Me and My Girl,'' while roughly a duplicate of the continuing West End production, has exchanged a mechanical English supporting cast for a freshly minted American one, jettisoned a deadly number and added a jazzy Act I Charleston. Mike Ockrent's lovingly archaic direction, as well as Stanley Lebowsky's pit band, have been drilled to Broadway's higher standard, even as Martin Johns's Edwardian sets and Ann Curtis's bright ''Tennis anyone?'' costumes remain amusing reminders of the latter-day West End's tatty notions of lavish production values. Gillian Gregory's expanded pastiche choreography, which exuberantly reprises the loony 30's dance craze ''The Lambeth Walk'' and alludes to at least two numbers from the film ''Singin' in the Rain,'' benefits enormously from American performance expertise. The production's only ill-advised revision for New York is a brief and patronizing nod to Hasidic Jews.
The musical's larger faults, however well masked, have hardly disappeared. For all the pruning and polishing done to the original L. Arthur Rose-Douglas Furber book and lyrics, every scene still seems five minutes too long (especially in the far windier Act II); the unfunny corny punch lines still outnumber the funny ones (also corny). Noel Gay's tuneful score, abetted by interpolated songs from his other shows and by Chris Walker's quintessentially Mayfair dance-band orchestrations, has its dreary interludes - particularly when chained to the more prosaic plot-advancing lyrics. One must also note that the musical's unreconstructed caricatures of social classes remain rooted in 1937, even as the original period is disregarded for anachronistic allusions to ''My Fair Lady'' and Richard Nixon.
With the exceptions of Timothy Jerome's excessively cute Gilbert-and-Sullivan model of a comic solicitor and Jane Summerhays's overdone vamp, the large company brings welcome precision to the preposterous goings-on, down to the bit roles filled by the spirited likes of Thomas Toner and Elizabeth Larner. George S. Irving and Jane Connell are the ideal pros to play the farcical elders in charge of the hero's tutelage in the Hareford manner. Nick Ullett finds new comic life in the stock aristocratic twit who regards the prospect of a job as ''disgusting'' and who is always finding new ways to wear argyle.
By far the most beguiling - and crucial - member of the supporting cast, however, is Miss Plunkett, as the spunky Cockney girlfriend whom the Hareford set would have Bill dump on his way up the economic ladder. Adorable but not glamorous, this American actress, last seen as Bernadette Peters's successor in ''Sunday in the Park With George,'' is convincing as a working-class Englishwoman, convincing as she belts out syrupy lyrics like ''You've got to follow your heart'' and convincing as a strong partner for a star whose magnetic grip on the audience is never relinquished. From their duet on the title song through their fog-swept dream reunion, Miss Plunkett and Mr. Lindsay persuade us that they're intimately connected by a generous, unsentimental affection - both as characters and as performers sharing a stage. Strange as it may sound in this modern musical era, ''Me and My Girl'' enchants by making us believe once again that there's no more wonderful reason to sing and dance than the love between a guy and his girl.