You gotta feel bad for Jerry Herman. Just as he became the undisputed king of the Broadway musical's Golden Age, along came Stephen Sondheim, who threw the whole idiom onto the trash heap.
Even people who don't know musical comedy know Jerry Herman musical comedy. All together now: "Hello, Dolly. Well hello, Dolly. It's so nice to have you back where you belong." And this goes out to the people in the balcony: "You coaxed the blues right out of the horn, Maaa-aame."
Herman hit stratospheric heights in the '60s with Hello, Dolly! and Mame, among others. But in the early '70s, Sondheim turned out, in rapid succession, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd, and drove the final nail into the coffin of the traditional book musical.
And Herman wasn't happy having the rug pulled out from under him. After a series of flops, he finally had another hit in 1983, when his La Cage aux Folles beat out Sondheim's Sunday in the Park With George for Best Musical; in his acceptance speech, Herman pointedly thanked the Tony committee for awarding a score people could hum to. (Sondheim had the last laugh, however, winning that year's Pulitzer.)
While I'm not all that crazy about Herman's material, I will say that you'd have to be stone-cold dead not recognize that nobody writes the kind of stuff Herman writes half as good as Herman does.
There is one feature of his music that I do enjoy, though: Herman specializes in big, show-stopping numbers for big divas to sing with big Broadway voices. And that brings us to Jerry's Girls, a musical revue of Herman's work with an emphasis on the songs he wrote for such legendary performers as Angela Lansbury, Carol Channing, Barbra Streisand, Bea Arthur, Pearl Bailey and Ethel Merman, to name a few.
The numbers in Jerry's Girls were written specifically to be sung by big, brassy belters. So it's a bit curious that in the Theatre Factory production, they cast women who aren't.
And I absolutely don't mean "can't sing," since these six women have lovely, melodic voices, some even sounding operatically trained. Each is capable of carrying Herman's tunes with precision and expression. But you haven't really "landed" a Herman number if you haven't scorched the eyebrows off the first three rows, and these pretty, polite voices don't ever come close. Imagine Doris Day (one of the world's most gifted singers) singing "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" from Dreamgirls and you get the idea. These are the right singers in the wrong roles.
Director Jeremy Czarniak may have cast the show oddly, but I do give him credit for moving his players around the stage with plenty of zip and purpose: This is a professionally paced production, and Czarniak and his "girls" never let the energy flag.
I'd also like to give a shout-out to Dee Grundy for coming up with the seemingly limitless number of costumes, which give the evening the appropriately polished look.
Jerry's Girls continues through May 16. The Theatre Factory, Cavitt Avenue and Third Street, Trafford. 412-374-9200.