There's something charming about a show that convinces you to visit your grandmother. A case in point is this weekend's Encores! concert version of "70, Girls, 70," John Kander and Fred Ebb's musical about senior citizens who form a gang of fur coat thieves.
"70, Girls, 70" arrived on Broadway in 1971, after Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret" and "Zorba," and before "Chicago." Unlike those successes, "70, Girls, 70" closed after a month, and it's easy to see why. Compared with "Cabaret's" chilling depiction of Nazi Germany, for instance, "70, Girls, 70" must have seemed like utter fluff. Had it been written today, it almost certainly would have been done Off-Broadway, where a musical is allowed to be less ambitious.
In the beginning of this concert production, it seems as if the unevenness of the cast might stifle the energy. Playing the gang's ringleader, for instance, is Olympia Dukakis, whose theater credits skew more classical than musical, and it shows.
But as the show moves along, the flaws fade to the background and the charms come forward. In an interview in Playbill, Kander says he wanted "a show where you could see the wrinkles," and in this production, his concept works: It barely matters that the chorus numbers can sound messy, or that some actors have trouble plowing through the quicker lyrics or that some have their heads buried in their scripts.
It helps that the book, by Ebb and Norman L. Martin and adapted for the concert by David Thompson, has the actors step out of the story and marvel at how they can still sing and dance. Gauging how well these alter cockers can still hold the stage becomes part of the fun. It also helps that director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall keeps the elderly empowerment message from becoming condescending.
The cast isn't exactly a nursing home glee club - it has wheelbarrows full of Broadway credits spread over the past six decades. Particularly enchanting are Anita Gillette, who plays the twitchy, ditzy Eunice, and Charlotte Rae, who brings an inspired comic vigor to two supporting roles. Harvey Evans and Robert Fitch, who have 48 Broadway credits between them, perform a rousing dance break during the title number.
The songs hit or miss. George S. Irving, who was in the original 1943 cast of "Oklahoma!" has the thankless task of a performing "The Caper," in which he uses a diagram to explain the plan for the first heist. "Broadway, My Street" is reminiscent of - and compares unfavorably to - "Broadway Baby" in "Follies," another musical about aging that opened 11 days before "70, Girls, 70," and which Kander, in the Playbill, blames for taking away some of his show's attention.
Several songs, however, ring completely true, such as "Old Folks," a sendup of senior citizen stereotypes, and "Do We?" a clever take on sex after 60. "You and I" is a touching ode to the simple joy of cuddling up with a spouse and watching television, yet it also acknowledges the dreariness of days spent watching something insignificant rather than doing something grand.
And "Go Visit Your Grandmother," a duet between Rae and the hotel's young valet, is beautifully staged and convincingly argued. I'll book tickets to Fort Lauderdale soon, Grandma.
70, GIRLS, 70. Directed by Kathleen Marshall; music directed by Paul Gemignani. New York City Center, West 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues. Tickets $25-$90. Through tomorrow. Call 212-581-1212 or visit www.nycitycenter .org.