Monday, May 28, 2012

Back to Coolidge: Nice Work If You Can Get It and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Matthew Broderick and the Cast of Nice Work If You Can Get It

With the obvious exception of George and Ira Gershwin, no one involved with the new Broadway musical Nice Work If You Can Get It is at his or her best:  not the director-choreographer, Kathleen Marshall (also represented currently on Broadway by her irresistible production of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes), or the two stars, Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara, or the scenic designer, Derek McLane or the costume designer, Martin Pakledinaz.  Joe DiPietro’s book is a limp reworking of the plot of the Gershwins’ 1926 hit musical Oh, Kay! (the original was the work of those skillful musical-comedy wordsmiths, Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse) about the romance of a playboy and a bootlegger whose hooch is stashed in the cellar of his Long Island mansion.  It would have made sense for Marshall to stage a revival of Oh, Kay!, which still has a lot of charm and a delectable score.  (You can hear the score complete, impeccably restored by Tommy Krasker, on a 1994 Nonesuch recording with Dawn Upshaw as Kay.)  Nice Work is a jukebox musical with twenty-one Gershwin tunes shoehorned in, many of them randomly.  Often musicals in the pre-Show Boat days (Oh, Kay! was one of the last, opening just thirteen months earlier) and even afterwards were just vehicles for songs and performers, but as disposable as the dramatic situations may have been, the songs generally fit them.  At least a third of the song cues in Nice Work are about as convincing as the ones in Mamma Mia!:  Billie (O’Hara), the renamed heroine, may be feisty but she’s not the kind of girl who would demand of a would-be lover, “Treat Me Rough.”  And why, exactly, is she singing “Hangin’ Around with You” while (masquerading as a domestic) she serves dinner to Jimmy (Broderick) and his house guests?

Only two of the songs, “Someone to Watch Over Me” (the hit of the original show) and “Do, Do, Do,” have been rescued from Oh, Kay!  The rest come from a variety of other Gershwin scores.  “Do It Again” from The French Doll predates George’s collaboration with Ira (Buddy DeSylva wrote the lyric). “Treat Me Rough” and “But Not for Me” are from Girl Crazy, “Looking for a Boy” and the show’s cabaret-set opener, “Sweet and Lowdown” from Tip-Toes, “I’ve Got to Be There” from Pardon My English.  “By Strauss,” which most Gershwin fans probably remember best from the 1951 Vincente Minnelli film An American in Paris, was a one-off contribution by the brothers to a 1936 musical called The Show Is On.  “I’ve Got a Crush on You” was written for Treasure Girl and then reused in the second version of Strike Up the Band, which is also the source of “Hangin’ Around with You.”  “Delishious” and “Blah Blah Blah” hail from the Gershwins’ first movie score, Delicious, and “Demon Rum” from The Shocking Miss Pilgrim  not made until 1946, nine years after George’s death, and containing songs Ira and Kay Swift dug out of his manuscripts.  The other seven songs are all associated with Fred Astaire, Gershwin’s personal favorite among the interpreters of his own work.  “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Lady Be Good” are from Lady, Be Good! And “’S Wonderful” from Funny Face – the two musicals the Gershwins wrote for Astaire and his sister and first dancing partner, Adele.  “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “They All Laughed,” among the last songs George penned, were sung by Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the film Shall We Dance, and Astaire crooned “Nice Work If You Can Get It” in A Damsel in Distress the same year, 1937.  Nice Work’s single contribution to the history of Gershwin performance is its rediscovery of a plaintive ballad called “Will You Remember Me?” that the brothers wrote for Lady, Be Good! but never used.

Matthew Broderick and Kelli O'Hara
Most of the songs are sung competently, a few more than that.  Judy Kaye shows off her dramatic soprano on “By Strauss,” though her role, Duchess Estonia Dulworth, a proselytizing, love-starved teetotaler who travels around with a (not especially well used) vice squad of young men in pinstripe suits, is a bad mistake.  O’Hara and Broderick sound sweet together on “’S Wonderful” and “Will You Remember Me?” and it’s always a pleasure to listen to her phrasing and the way she mines the emotion of a lyric, especially a ballad.  “Someone to Watch Over Me” is lovely, and it’s safe to say that no one has done more with “But Not for Me” since Judy Garland in the movie version of Girl Crazy seven decades ago.  But though I’d gladly watch Kelli O’Hara in anything, raucous, tomboyish, salt-of-the-earth roles don’t serve her distinctive bruised delicacy.  (She wasn’t an ideal fit for The Pajama Game either.)  One of the nicest musical moments is “Do, Do, Do,” which Broderick strums on a banjo and sings as part of a barbershop quartet – perhaps a nod to The Foursome, who introduced “Bidin’ My Time” in Girl Crazy.  (There’s another nod for Gershwin aficionados:  when Jimmy and Billie meet for the first time and he asks her name, she lies and says it’s Gertrude.  Gertrude Lawrence was the star of Oh, Kay!)  But though Broderick, with that stylized vocal attack that mixes up parts of W.C. Fields and Dudley Moore, is enormously likable, he’s too old for the part of a much-married ne’er-do-well who’s still trying to prove to his no-nonsense mama (Estelle Parsons, who shows up twenty minutes from the end) that he’s mature and responsible.  Broderick is in quite a few of the numbers, and his dancing is just OK; you get the sense that Marshall, one of the best choreographers working today, was constrained by having to work so many of the dances around him, since except for a lively Charleston in the first-act finale, “Fascinating Rhythm,” nothing in the choreography makes a strong impression.  There’s an awful, campy number (“Delishious”) in which half a dozen chorus girls in marcelled platinum wigs pop out of the tub where Jennifer Laura Thompson, as Jimmy’s self-involved fiancĂ©e Eileen, is bathing, joined by chorus boys in baffling outfits that look like they came out of a road company of The Three Musketeers.

Thompson’s role is another bad mistake.  Her character is so irritating that you groan inwardly every time she shows up, and it’s hard to decide which is the worse idea:  making her a parody of an Isadora Duncan-like modern dancer or having her sing a lyric-altered “I’ve Got a Crush on You” (“You’ve Got a Crush on Me”) to Jimmy as she walks down the aisle.  Michael McGrath does what he can with a second-rate vaudeville part, Billie’s partner Cookie McGee; Stanley Wayne Mathis can’t figure out what to do with his role, the police chief who, unaccountably, joins Jimmy and Billie on a woefully misplaced “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”  These two men are far too talented for the stuff they have to get into here, as is Terry Beaver, who plays Eileen’s dad (and the Duchess’s brother), a senator who’s also a judge and a reverend.  (There’s no dearth of dopey ideas in this show.)  On the other hand, the scenes between Chris Sullivan as the outsize sad sack Duke Mahoney (the third of the bootlegging trio) and Robyn Hurder as his main squeeze, Jeannie Muldoon, are very pleasing.  They get to sing “Do It Again” in act one, though when Broderick gets around to “Do, Do, Do” in act two you can’t help thinking that it’s  essentially the same song except that “Do, Do, Do,” written four years later, is better.  The entire evening feels like a stretch without a point.

Deborah Rush, Aaron Lazar, Megan Hilty, Clarke Thorell, Rachel York and Stephen R. Buntrock in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

The high-octane Charleston near the end of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the final Encores! production of the season, is just one of this show’s many delights.  It’s choreographed by Randy Skinner and set to “Keeping Cool with Coolidge.”  By coincidence for one weekend you could see two Jazz Age-set musicals, neither of which was actually written during the twenties, and naturally you have to make comparisons.  The score of Gentlemen (by Jule Styne and Leo Robin) couldn’t possibly equal the Gershwin playlist for Nice Work If You Can Get It, but John Rando’s production is light and buoyant.  The musical comes from 1949; it made a star of the indescribable Carol Channing.  (Well, maybe not indescribable:  Pauline Kael once wrote that she grins like an albino Louis Armstrong.)  Its source is a series of sketches Anita Loos wrote in the twenties  and published as a novel at the insistence of her friend H.L. Mencken  in the voice of Lorelei Lee, a busty blonde from Little Rock, Arkansas with little education but a hilariously affected rhetorical style, an iron-clad practicality when it comes to finding sugar daddies, and absolutely no inhibitions.  (Freud tries to psychoanalyze her but gives up.)  She and her hard-boiled friend Dorothy Shaw travel to Europe together; they’re inseparable, though Lorelei is constantly embarrassed by Dorothy’s wisecracks (she thinks they’re unrefined) and anxious about Dorothy’s penchant for falling in love with men without first investigating their bank balance.  Lorelei is an icon of Coolidge-era prosperity, though Howard Hawks’s 1953 movie version, which is the closest most people have come to the musical, updates the story, pointlessly.  (And except for Marilyn Monroe and the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number, it’s very dull.)  The stage musical is no masterpiece, but it retains the spirit of the book (Loos and Joseph Fields co-adapted it) and when it’s performed as well as it is by Encores!, it more than justifies a revival.

Lorelei is played by the vivacious Megan Hilty, one of the contenders for the role of Monroe in the TV series Smash.  The audience falls in love with her on her first entrance, and any outliers certainly succumb by the time she finishes singing “I’m Just a Little Girl from Little Rock” (“I was young and determined / I was wined and dined and ermined”).  She has a habit of throwing out her arms as if she were mimicking a flowering tree:  very elocution-class, very funny.  (It goes along with Lorelei’s diction – “a girl like I” and so on.)  Hilty gets most of the good songs, though there are a few left over for two talented crooners, Clarke Thorell as Lorelei’s beau Gus (“Bye Bye Baby,” which plays on in your head after you’ve left the theatre) and Aaron Lazar as Dorothy’s swain, Henry Spofford (“Just a Kiss Apart”).  The bobbed brunette Dorothy’s songs are all unmemorable, but Rachel York vivifies them.  York sees to it that the show never founders when Hilty’s off the stage; it’s fun to hear what she can do with a Dadaist line like “How can one man eat so many carrots and be so unlike a rabbit?”  The terrific cast also includes Deborah Rush as Spofford’s mother, who keeps resisting his efforts to restrain her when she wants to hang out with the flappers; Simon Jones (you might remember him as Bridey in the TV series Brideshead Revisisted) as Sir Francis Beekman, whom Lorelei knocks off his feet during the crossing, and Sandra Shipley as his wife; Stephen R. Buntrock as Gus’s business rival (he manufactures zippers; Gus is the button man), a “physical culture” fanatic; Brennan Brown and Steven Boyer as hand-kissing father-and-son Parisian lawyers (an uproarious vaudevillian bit straight out of the novel); Megan Sikora as a Follies girl; and a pair of astonishing African American hoofers named Phillip Attmore and Jared Grimes.  (Grimes did some jaw-dropping tapping in Cotton Club Parade for Encores! last fall.)  Attmore & Grimes, as they’re billed, are inheritors of the Nicholas Brothers’ legacy:  on “Mamie Is Mimi,” where they partner Sikora, they execute a back flip that culminates in splits.

The entertainingly flamboyant costumes include an embroidered violet gown and matching jacket for Rush and an ostrich fan for Hilty.  (David C. Woolard is listed as costume consultant.)  Rob Berman does his usual marvelous job with the singers and the Encores! Orchestra.  The high points include a counterpoint chorus number (“In the Champ de Mars”) that becomes  an American in Paris-style dance, but it’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” of course, that brings down the house in the middle of act two.  It turns out there are several obscure verses, so Hilty keeps sailing offstage to loud applause, then sailing right back on to deliver unexpected encores.  She’s a honey.

 Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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