They might have called this show A LITTLE BITTA THIS, A LITTLE BITTA THAT. I don’t know the way in which it was formed, but there is a vague connection to Oh, Kay! a hit from 1926 when everybody was very young and George Gershwin a little bit in love with Kay Swift who was married to a man named Jimmy, so he used their names for his hero and heroine. The lyrics to Oh, Kay! came from his brother Ira and the book from the prolific Brit librettists Guy Bolton and P.G.Wodehouse.
This time out, Joe DiPietro has used all this as a starting point, and his book is billed as “based on material” by the original writers. At some point Kathleen Marshall entered the picture, for her direction and choreography of what came to be known as Nice Work If You Can Get It is so integrated into the newly created material, she must have been there early in its inception.
The Gershwin estate granted Di Pietro and Marshall full license to the Gershwins’ catalog, and they have feasted from it. Ignoring many of the more familiar titles, they have plucked out “Sweet and Lowdown”, “I’ve Got To Be There,” “‘Swonderful,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Do Do Do,” “Blah Blah Blah,” “I’ve Got A Crush on You,” “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” and “They All Laughed,” among others from films and other Broadway shows with Gershwin scores. How they made it all come out so smoothly is something of a miracle, for their nutty tale of boozy millionaire Jimmy Winter falling for bootlegger Billie Bendix despite the disapproval of her sidekick Cookie McGee and Jimmy’s mother Millicent, does make sense if you compare it to other gems of the 1920s, and that’s all this new show, which is like a revival of a new musical, asks of us.
In order to pull this off, actors who can play wacky while romantic are essential. Also required are those with no inhibitions and very loose limbs, and a good lot of them have gathered for this outing.
For starters, the pervasively innocent, clumsy and charming Matthew Broderick has been endearingly miscast as the womanizing boozehound and we are asked to accept the always delightful ladylike Kelli O’Hara as the tough alpha female renamed Billie Bendix who used to be “Kay” and who was once played by Gertrude Lawrence, another star who’s image is about as close to O’Hara’s as Mary Martin’s was to Ethel Merman’s.
To complete my theory that there is no mis-casting in musical comedy, that only lack of talent is frowned upon, Martin and Merman both played Annie Oakley, so why not have O’Hara and Lawrence play Billie Bendix (aka Kay) if you get my meaning.
This sort of stew needs seasoning, and the insertion of Judy Kaye as a teetotaling Duchess and Michael McGrath as a loyal and loudmouth Cookie McGee bring mirth and merriment with them each time they hit the stage. Accordingly, it’s only right that these two, totally unsuited to each other, should end up happily ever aftering, for by the time we hit the finale, we’d have it no other way. As a deus ex machina extra added attraction, they have added Estelle Parsons as Jimmy’s mother Millicent. She has just the final moments in which to twist the plot a little, but on my visit Ms. Parsons was elsewhere, so it fell to her understudy Jennifer Smith to beautifully fill her shoes (and her remarkable wardrobe — three great gowns for two small but pivotal scenes). Ms. Smith personifies why Broadway is the best — she was ready, willing and very able.
Marshall sprinkles dance over the evening like stardust from above. She keeps the ensemble of chorus girls, society guys and the vice squad nimbly hotfooting it all over the ritzy living rooms, bedrooms and front lawns all evening. Two or three times she sends Broderick and O’Hara tripping up and down staircases, onto and over couches, in and around other pieces of furniture, reminding us how brilliant were Rogers and Astaire, but enjoying these two non-dancers bursting with good intentions and a genuine effort to keep up.
That they don’t come close is of no matter. They’ve given it a good shot, they’ve kept their eyes off the floor, and they’ve offered us smiles that say “we hope you like us, we really do.” And so we do.
Brian Ronan’s sound design deserves special mention, for he allows us to appreciate Bill Elliot’s masterful orchestrations, and proves once again, as he did in The Book of Mormon and the recent Anything Goes that sound need not distort. Kelli O’Hara’s lovely pure light soprano, Judy Kaye’s dark contralto, Jennifer Laura Thompson’s big belt, all, as it says in the song, “Delishous.” Thank you, Brian Ronan!
Derek McLane’s colorful sets, Peter Kaczorowski’s cheerful lighting and Martin Pakledinaz’ wildly extravagant gowns make their own statements that this is not a Sondheim or a Kander and Ebb piece. Darkness, subtext, motivation has been left in the wings and we are sent out into the night relieved of all reality, better prepared to cope with it once we hit the street. I think that’s a lot for one musical comedy to do, I call it very nice work indeed.
Nice Work If You Can Get It is onstage at the Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th St, NYC.
Details and tickets
Richard Seff, who numbers among his many accomplishments, careers as Broadway performer, agent, writer, and librettist, has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com. Read more at RichardSeff.com
- Richard Seff interviews Broadway luminaries:
Richard Seff podcasts: