Tuesday, April 24, 2012

THEATER: Nice Work If You Can Get It

From the sound of it, Nice Work If You Can Get It is setting itself up from failure: classic Gershwin songs harshly bolted onto a Prohibition-era farce that's adapted by Joe DiPietro from work by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse. Confidence is inspired by director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall, fresh off of Anything Goes, and her leading lady, the do-anything Kelli O'Hara, but there's still that disclaimer-like "if" haunting the title. Rest assured, however, that the result of this "new" musical is nice work -- actually, pretty damn wonderful work. DiPietro has as firm yet playful hand here as he did with Memphis, the songs are more than merely soldered on -- they're actually often comically playing against the original context -- and David Chase's arrangements are terrific (see the dueling "By Strauss" and "Sweet and Lowdown"), and Marshall's direction is quick, lively, and above all, fun, with lots of storytelling stuffed into the extended dance sequences.

The single rough patch rests in this entire affair rests on Matthew Broderick's weary shoulders: he looks bored to be playing yet another variation on Leo Bloom -- he's now a rich simpleton -- and his arms are so stiff that it appears he's trying to bring planking to Broadway, particularly in comparison to full-bodied performers like Michael McGrath, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Robyn Hurder, Chris Sullivan, and Judy Kaye. It's far from awful, mind you, and Broderick's got a fine voice, but Act II opens with the talented chorus girls loosening up the previously (and purposefully) vice-squad boys, and one keeps waiting for Broderick to similarly blossom. (Okay, there's perhaps one more sore spot: Derek McLane's sets aren't nearly ritzy nor colorful enough, but all that open space and those blank walls are at least covered up and somewhat justified by the constant dancing.)

The plot's a tried-and-true one: in fact, as pointed out by a friend, it's actually a revised version of 1926's Oh, Kay, but with almost entirely new music. On the eve of his fourth (yet first "respectable") marriage, Jimmy (Broderick) stumbles out of a speakeasy and all but passes out in the arms of Billie (O'Hara), a toughened, never-been-kissed bootlegger. As it happens, Billie and her crew, consisting of the sharp and put-upon Cookie (McGrath) and the loyal yet nervous Duke (Sullivan), need a place to stash their liquor from the likes of Chief Berry (Stanley Wayne Mathis), Senator Reverend Judge Max Evergreen (Terry Beaver) and a Carrie Nation-like Duchess Estonia Dulworth (Kaye), who runs the unfortunately titled "League of Dry Women." Their solution is to head to the exorbitantly wealthy Jimmy's never-used Long Island beach-house, unaware that Jimmy's marriage to the interpretive dancing Eileen Evergreen (Thompson) is to be consummated there. In order to keep the owners out of the booze-filled cellar, Cookie disguises himself as a butler while Billie attempts to distract Jimmy with her "womanly ways" -- falling for him in the process. (In a sweet subplot, the head chorus girl, Jeanine [Hurder] is led to believe that Duke is an actual Duke, and actively woos him.)

With the exception of the ill-fitting (or at least less slick) finale to Act I, "Fascinating Rhythm," much of the joy derived from Nice Work If You Can Get It is in seeing these Gershwin classics turned on their heads or given a proper home. Billie sings "Someone To Watch Over Me" as she's handling a bolt-action rifle, "Looking for a Boy" is sung by the drunk, chandelier-seizing Duchess, "Hangin' Around With You" becomes a cockney-accented revenge song, and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" takes on charming new life as Billie and Jimmy attempt to fool the police into thinking that they're married. As for "'S Wonderful" and "They All Laughed," they're perhaps the most apt choices of the evening, since they both handily describe the musical itself. It's worth emphasizing the lesson taught by "Blah Blah Blah," however: words are never as important as the context behind them, and Marshall's direction is filled with scene-enriching material. To wit, "Treat Me Rough" is hysterically matched with some of the clumsiest flirting ever staged, and Eileen's vanity is emphasized by the bubble-bath fantasia that accompanies "Delishious."

I don't ordinarily fall head-over-heels for such airy entertainment -- especially not two-and-half-hours worth -- but Nice Work If You Can Get It has me humming away on cloud nine. Perhaps it's hard to get work these days; at least this musical's making it easy to play.

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