At the conclusion of the Saturday matinee during the seven performance run of each Encores! presentation at New York’s City Center, there is always a talkback with members of the company, or artists connected to the original productions will speak to us. In the case of George and Ira Gershwin’s first collaboration to hit Broadway, Lady, Be Good!, we were treated to background information from Jack Viertel, the producer of the series, and from Rob Fisher (the guest Music Director, who returned for this production after wielding the baton for the first 12 seasons of the series, starting in 1994.) The gloriously unique Tommy Tune joined many of his fellow cast members for the talkback, for he had just played the role of “Jeff”, though he was billed as “The Professor” in the program, which gives you some idea of the Looney Tunes attitude of the book to the musical. 1924 was a year in which there were six times as many productions as we have these days, and musicals were designed strictly for entertainment of which Lady Be Good! is a prime example.
A packed house of musical theater lovers who are as devoted to Encores! as is the rest of America to the Super Bowl, hooted and hollered all through the performance, in appreciation for what was up there on stage. Director Mark Brokaw and choreographer Randy Skinner delivered staging that could not be bettered. Dispensing with scenery altogether allowed for entrances and exits to occur all over the place without much ado. Jack Viertel, in adapting the book by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson, cut pages of dialogue, which was very wise. What was left was a crazily illogical story, something to do with a brother and sister who were so broke they had to try to arrange marriages that would improve their lot. That’s really all you need to know about the story. The plot twisted and turned with a series of one-liner jokes, many of them very funny, and a couple of insertions in which Mr. Viertel admitted he did a little plagiarizing, using a line from a David Ives comedy (with permission).
Of course these musical soufflés require a company of actors who understand how to present material that is lighthearted and perfectly happy to remain so. The Encores! series has been blessed since the beginning with brilliant casting by Jay Binder, Jason Styres and their associates.
This musical was conceived as a vehicle for the very popular Fred and Adele Astaire, so it was important to find two charismatic performers to fill their tap shoes. In Danny Gardner as Dick Trevor and Patty Murin as his sister Susie, they came up with two affable and most appealing singer-dancers. Miss Murin in particular has the kind of grace and style that makes one believe she is not unlike the once adored Adele Astaire. On her own she has the most individual style, and I enjoyed her dancing partly because she seems to be enjoying it too.
She also knows how to sell a song, be it the tongue-in-cheek “Swiss Miss” or the lovely and melodic “So Am I.” As her brother, Mr. Gardner gives us a peek at what Fred Astaire might have been in this role. His style is more energetic, but he delivers a most satisfactory Dick Trevor.
In a large, attractive and very talented ensemble, stand out performances are given by Jeff Hiller, Colin Donnell and most particularly Douglas Sills, who sings the title song with relish and abandon, and contributes mightily whenever he appears on stage as J. Watterson Watkins, one of the many suitors running around. Chris Fenwick and Greg Anthony play dual pianos, introducing what became something of a tradition with George Gershwin. They have a solo section, and it is quite thrilling. Anthony is an up-and-coming conductor, orchestrator, and arranger whose performance at the piano on stage make him a quadruple threat. There is no bio in the program for Chris Fenwick so I can’t give you his background, but he was quite wonderful too.
And then there is Tommy Tune. When he appeared magically from behind a piece of floating scenery, dressed to the nines in a tomato red outfit, his reception let him know that he has been sorely missed since his last performance on Broadway in a one man show that only played 10 performances. In Lady, Be Good!, he is playing the role that isn’t involved in the book at all so we get a bit of him in Act One in which he glides through “Fascinating Rhythm”, seemingly as nimble as ever. Then he leaves the stage to the ensemble who attack the song with youthful vigor, served up with precision and personality.. He returns to lead them to finish the wacky and wonderful tune that George Gershwin and his brother Ira have given us all. Result? Pure joy.
This lovely revival completely serves the mandate of the Encores! series. It offers a contemporary audience a look into our glorious musical theater past, and allows us to know where it all began and how it influenced the writers of today. May they listen well, return somewhat to the roots, for there was nothing in this world quite so energizing and refreshing as a low down fast and funny, melodic musical comedy.
Lady, Be Good! was performed February 4 – 8, 2015.
Next up at Encores!:
Paint Your Wagon Mar 18 — 22, 2015
Zorba! May 6 — 10 , 2015
and at Encores! Off Center:
A New Brain
Jun 24 – 27, 2015
Little Shop of Horrors
Jul 1 – 2, 2015
Andrew Lippa’s rewrite of The Wild Party
Jul 15 – 18, 2015