This musical pastiche, put together with bits and pieces of a dozen old musical comedies, opened 9 months ago at the Imperial on Broadway, and it’s very much still there, doing business that defies the mostly negative reviews that first greeted it.
As I wrote in this space back in May of last year, I was in the minority — I liked it, and said so at some length. I rooted for it, but, to be truthful, I thought it would have a rough time finding an audience large enough to sustain the large cast and the salaries of its two stars, Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara, it’s two top featured players Judy Kaye and Michael McGrath, its “guest star,” Estelle Parsons playing a character who shows up just before the final curtain to throw big curves at the plot, its lively group of featured players and its ample ensemble of attractive singers and dancers.
But the public, the final arbiter on all things theatrical, decided to give it a shot, which is why I was in the audience once again at a recent matinee, in 16 degree weather, to see if a second viewing would explain why the theatre was full or nearly full each night (and sold out at my matinee).
I’m glad I was there, for now I understand everything.
Let’s start with the number one star, Mr. Broderick. His performance was almost unanimously panned, for he is indeed neither a singer, dancer nor conventional leading man. No, he is a bit of a clutz, with an amiable light baritone of no particular distinction, he’s gotten a bit plump, so Ferris Beuhler and the young hero Eugene Jerome of all those Neil Simon comedies has turned into his own wimpish Uncle Jimmy Winters in this one.
He doesn’t seem to miss them either, and he’s found his own way of making Jimmy his own. His lovely co-star is Kelli O’Hara, who endeared herself to us in A Light in the Plaza, The Pajama Game and South Pacific, as a clean, wholesome American leading lady who could play insecure, unsophisticated, spicey, sweet and game Americans.
In Nice Work, she is being asked to play none of the above; here she is a tough dame who is part of a bootlegging mob, a gal who wears pants more comfortably than prom gowns, whose hairdo would suit Rosie the Riveter. Her “Billie Bendix” is the sidekick of a comical crook called “Cookie McGee,”and Joe DiPietro’s book asks us to believe that this crook two minutes after we meet her would sing about how she’s been looking for “someone to watch over me.” just because Gertrude Lawrence sang it effectively in Oh, Kay!, the 1920s George and Ira Gershwin musical on which Nice Work is vaguely “based.”
Before I confuse you further, you should know that none of the above matters because logic never comes near this show. The so-called love stories (there are four of them going on, occasionally all at the same time) involve Billie and Jimmy, Dutchess Dulworth and Cookie McGee, a couple called Jeannie and Duke and eventually two senior citizens called Millicent and Senator Evergreen, who is much more than a mere senator.
They get to sing songs that were originally housed in Oh, Kay!, Girl Crazy, Lady Be Good, Tip Toes, Funny Face, Pardon My English, The Show is On, the movies “Delicious” and “Shall We Dance?”, among many others. Even “The Rhapsody In Blue ” pops up when needed. Every now and then Kathleen Marshall, who staged Nice Work, has her ensemble gliding in and out, up and down, over and under the ritzy verandas, living rooms, bedrooms, dining rooms and front lawn of the various beach houses and town homes.
But her biggest coup is the lengthy Rogers and Astaire pairing she here assigns to O’Hara and Broderick. She has them (attempting) to do everything Fred and Ginger did. And they do! She invokes the spirit of Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in one section and there they go jumping over the arms of a couch, flipping over its back, tumbling onto its seat and landing safely on all twenty toes to continue their terpsichorean travels.
Dancing up and down steps, no easy feat for anyone, no problem for them. They smile a lot, never miss a beat, and it’s ok if you see their lips counting 6-7-8 as they pretend to be light on their feet. When it’s all over, and they are safely seated on their staircase, we cheer them for their good sportsmanship, for their game effort, for their entertaining achievement. It would be as though your Uncle Dan and Aunt Lillian did all that at a family gathering. You just have to give these two kids a great big hand.
I wanted to revisit the show for another reason; I wanted to see what Blythe Danner might do in the role Estelle Parsons first played — though Parsons was out when I reviewed the show. Ms. Danner, always elegant, has three scrumptious gowns to wear in her fifteen minutes of fame center stage, and she lands every hilarious crack with the aplomb of a true star. Mr. DiPietro has saved most of his funny lines for this wrap up and he is enormously helped by Ms. Danner who has to be having as much fun as she had when she had her first great success on Broadway 44 years ago in Butterflies Are Free.
I also wanted to see what Brad Oscar might do with “Cookie McGee” for the spectacular Michael McGrath had a great success in the role, and won himself a Tony for creating it. Mr. McGrath is away for a couple of months on another assignment, and it’s always tough stepping into a well oiled situation, particularly one in which you must play opposite the equally incredible Judy Kaye, who also waltzed off with a Tony in the role of Dutchess Dulworth.
Oscar and McGrath project different qualities –They both would be happy inhabiting Damon Runyon’s characters, but Oscar is just a tad broader, a bit tougher. The remarkable achievement here is that he and Ms. Kaye are seemless in their big number ‘”Looking for a Boy” and its reprise. It is such a pleasure to see low comics of this calibre, and it’s to Oscar’s credit that he has managed the almost impossible — Mr. McGrath will be welcomed back but his replacement is keeping Cookie alive and in great shape.
One final word for the magic that is exclusively Broadway. The quality of this production, the commitment to opening night freshness from this superb cast right down to its ensemble dancers and singers, is what makes those lovely customers keep coming back for more. A matinee in freezing winter during the tenth month of a long run that brings opening night excitement to a full house — I felt privileged to be part of it.
This is not a masterful musical. It’s a hodge podge, you won’t care a fig whether Jimmy finally lands Billie or any of the others end up with their happily ever after mates. But if you can find that long hidden funny bone in you, if you can get in touch with your silly side – you know the side which gets so few airings in this scary world – put some fun in your life — go see NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT — all you need is a ticket and a light heart.
Nice Work If You Can Get It is onstage at the Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th St, NYC. Details and tickets