Monday, February 23, 2015

Lady, Be Good!: Flapper-Era Gershwin

Tommy Tune in Lady, Be Good! at New York’s City Center. (Photo by Sara Krulwich)

George Gershwin wrote sixteen Broadway musical scores in the 1920s (two were shared with other composers), and though some of the early ones rendered up small treasures like “Drifting Along with the Tide,” “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” and “Somebody Loves Me,” his first distinguished work was for Lady, Be Good! in 1924. It was his initial collaboration with his brother Ira, and the first he wrote for the peerless team of Fred and Adele Astaire, who later starred in the Gershwins’ Funny Face. (In Hollywood, at what turned out to be the final years of George’s far-too-short life, he and Ira wrote two fantastic movie scores for Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and one for Astaire without Rogers.) Adele never made a movie – she retired in 1932 to marry an English lord – but she was reportedly Fred’s most gifted dance partner, and if there is no visual record of the quality of her dancing, the recordings they did together preserve her quicksilver flapper personality. Several of the most charming ones are from Lady, Be Good!, including “Hang on to Me” and the ineffable “Fascinating Rhythm,” a syncopated tune that seems to embody an entire era.

In the show the Astaires played Dick and Susie Trevor, a brother and sister who are evicted from their apartment.  Dick elects to bring an end to their money troubles by wedding a wealthy socialite; to save him from a miserable marriage and reunite him with the girl he loves, Susie agrees – for a fee – to help an unsavory lawyer collect a fortune by posing as the widow of one of his clients. The disposable plot, dreamed up by book writers Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson, provides the framework for farce and vaudevillian humor as well as for the marvelous songs and the dances. Bolton was a master at this kind of lighthearted book writing; he and P.G. Wodehouse had worked with Jerome Kern on the Princess Theatre shows in the previous decade, and he and Bolton would combine forces with the Gershwins again on Tip-Toes (starring Jeanette MacDonald) and Oh, Kay! (starring Gertrude Lawrence).

Danny Gardner and Patti Murin. (Photo by Sara Kurlwich)
There’s a witty, nonchalant style that restores the throwaway elegance of these forgotten early Gershwin musicals, but Mark Brokaw who directed the Encores! revival of Lady, Be Good! at New York’s City Center between February 5 and 8 didn’t find it. His staging was often clever and evocative, but the comedy felt forced. The night I saw the show, a second-act prop, a pair of handcuffs, failed to work, and the two actors in the scene, Douglas Sills (as the lawyer, J. Watterson Watkins) and Jeff Hiller (as his captor, Bertie Bassett), got a live-TV sort of laugh by acknowledging the flub, and the casualness of the humor was precisely what had been missing all evening. Sills was hilarious playing opposite Renée Fleming as one of a married pair of narcissistic opera celebs in Livingon Love at Williamstown last summer (they’ll be reprising their roles on Broadway soon), but he wasn’t in top form here, and Hiller and Kirsten Wyatt as Bassett’s main squeeze, the baby-doll redhead Daisy Parke, seemed rather stock-company. More crucially disappointing were Danny Gardner and Patti Murin, who didn’t have the dynamic personalities for the Fred and Adele parts. The only one of the principals who broke through was Colin Donnell as Jack Robinson, the allegedly dead man whose wife Susie is pretending to be (and with whom, naturally, she falls in love without realizing who he is). Donnell is an old hand at this kind of musical: he shared the stage with Sutton Foster and Joel Grey in Kathleen Marshall’s stupendous production of Anything Goes in 2011. 

Whatever his shortcomings, though, Gardner can certainly dance; his tap in the second-act number “The Half of It Dearie Blues” was one of the highlights of the production. Indeed, there was nothing to fault in Randy Skinner’s choreography throughout, or in Rob Fisher’s conducting. (Fisher, the resident conductor and musical archivist for many years at Encores!, made a guest appearance.) I enjoyed the two twin-piano duets by Chris Fenwick and Greg Anthony (a reprise of “Fascinating Rhythm” and one of the title song as part of the entr’acte), standing in for the 1924 duo-pianists Phil Ohman and Vic Arden. The first time we heard “Fascinating Rhythm,” it was sung and danced in the middle of act one by Tommy Tune in a red suit and vest and matching sneakers, his foot sliding surreptitiously to the side to suggest how the rhythm starts to take him over before it ascends to his legs and arms. The character Tune played was called simply The Professor, his only identity that of novelty performer, but he woke up the show with his unstressed charm and old-veteran charisma. At the end of the verse he danced off and returned post-haste with five dancing couples in black suits; eventually they all glided off, hands in pockets. The whole number was a small miracle of showmanship. In the second act Tune reappeared in a blue suit identical to his red one (Michael Krass acted as costume consultant) but with silvery tap shoes instead of running shoes, and on his head was a boater with a little prop bird on top. Then he executed “Little Jazz Bird” with the same air of graceful relaxation. Lady, Be Good! could have used more of Tommy Tune.

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 and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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