The remarkably gifted George Gershwin was astoundingly prolific. He left behind an amazing musical legacy that is still wildly popular and familiar 75 years after his death at the shockingly young age of 38. (Many 38-year-olds these days are still living at home.) It is remarkable, too, that he continues to churn out new shows periodically.
In the 80s, there was My One and Only; in the 90s, Crazy for You. The latest “new” musical that grafts highlights of the Gershwin songbook onto an (ahem) original plot (most of the lyrics, of course, are by Gershwin’s brother Ira) is Nice Work If You Can Get It, a vehicle for Matthew Broderick that ran on Broadway for about a year. Now, a couple of years later, a non-union national tour (obviously not including Broderick, who is in this season’s hit comedy It’s Only a Play on the Great White Way) is making the rounds, and it breezed in and out of the Warner Theatre this weekend for a quick three shows.
The show, written by Joe DiPietro (Memphis; I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change), is a Prohibition-era situation comedy involving devices, plot, and characters familiar from any number of 30s screwball comedy films, as well as the fluffy musical comedies for which the Gershwins originally wrote the songs which form the bedrock of what is called The Great American Songbook.
The good news is that the Broadway production was directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, a three-time Tony winner who has an impressive track record reviving Golden Era musicals. Her witty, scintillating work (most especially her choreography) elevates the evening from what could have been a cliché-ridden trip down memory lane into a fun-filled night well spent.
For the tour, Marshall’s work has been “recreated” by David Eggers, an assistant who worked with her on the Broadway production, as well as on the recent Anything Goes revival. So many times, choreography that has been recreated for a revival or a tour feels like a pale imitation of an original. The choreography here has such sparkle that Eggers proves himself to be a worthy steward of Marshall’s work. I wonder if he also might not be an impressive talent in his own right. Keep an eye on him.
The charged politics surrounding the proliferation of non-Equity tours notwithstanding, the cast Friday night gave it their all. It’s hard to imagine the dancing being much more impressive in a union production. The performances ranged from perfectly fine to downright impressive.
The specter of Broderick did hang over the evening a bit. Alex Enterline sang and danced the playboy lead role capably, but I kept feeling as if the comic bits in the dialogue scenes must have had more zing when performed with the unerring Broderick touch. After all, they were developed with him in mind. Mariah MacFarlane sang beautifully as the bootlegger that everyone knows the playboy is going to end up with (and that was played originally by Broadway favorite Kelli O’Hara).
The second leads, Reed Campbell as the gangster who has to pretend to be a butler and especially Stephanie Harter Gilmore as the temperance-crusading aunt who, of course, ends up three sheets to the wind, were highlights. Rachael Scarr deftly walked a fine line as the rich fiancee, so that the comic type she plays didn’t become grating. Benjamin Perez, whose headshot in the program looks like a young Tom Wilkinson, plays another of the stodgy rich folks, a Senator. On stage, his resemblance in costume and make-up to David Koch might have added to how well the jokes about politicians went over, which is to say, like gang-busters.
It was great to have your eye drift to the periphery of a scene and see the players in the smallest parts engaged with and reacting with charming detail to the main action. And it was cool that not all of the terrific dancers had perfect dancer bodies, that some were on the heavier side. My companion, who has a lot of experience with and training in dance, told me that this sort of body-type inclusiveness is a hallmark of Marshall’s work.
Derek McLane’s sets for the Broadway production don’t seem to have been skimped on for this tour. If they are not as breathtaking as his set across town for the Gigi revival (wow), the sets here are impressive and involved. Perhaps the load-in is what caused a 20-minute delayed curtain for the first of the DC performances.
“Do, Do, Do”, during which Enterline pulls out a ukelele, is a brilliant Marshall touch and gave the proceedings a cool, contemporary echo of Israël K.’s version of “Over the Rainbow.” The wedding sequence, during which Scarr delivers “I’ve Got a Crush on You” as “You’ve Got a Crush on Me” is one of the show’s few mis-steps, where a song felt as if the way it was being employed was fighting against the original. Snippets of Gershwin’s long-form, classically influenced, more serious work are employed as incidental music here. That would have been more effective if, alas, the gorgeous “Rhapsody in Blue” hadn’t been appropriated by United Airlines so ubiquitously that, when you hear it now, it feels more like an advertising jingle than the ground-breaking work it was. As with Gigi, which had to reassign the song “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” to avoid creepiness that a mid-20th century audience might not have registered, some of the songs in this show, such as “Do It Again”, definitely have not aged well, lyric-wise, to contemporary ears.
If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If a review runs after the production has closed, does it? If the review isn’t going to sell tickets to the show that has already left town, can you put the online critic in a seat so far to audience right that he can’t see some of the action stage left? Fortunately, there was a nearly empty row in the center bank of seats and we moved into it after the intermission. Seat selection advice for those of you lucky enough to be on the schedule for this touring company.
The touring production of Nice Work If You Can Get It was at the Warner Theatre January 30 and 31, 2015.