Sunday, April 29, 2012
Nice Work If You Can Get It at the Imperial Theatre
The Imperial Theatre holds all of the ingredients for a sure fire hit. We've got the songbook of George and Ira Gershwin, an updated book by Tony Award winner Jo DiPietro, direction and choreography by Kathleen Marshall who worked magic on the similarly set Anything Goes last season, and star power in the form of Matthew Broderick and Kelli O'Hara. What could go wrong?
Where to begin? Nice Work If You Can Get It, a very loose reworking of the 1926 musical, Oh, Kay!, has a great deal of charm and contains many wonderful performances. The choreography is infectious, the costumes (Martin Pakledinaz) and sets (Derek McLane) are bright and delightful. Yet, what ultimately is missing is a few screws in this leaden attempt at a screwball comedy.
Nice Work If You Can Get It shares with its source material only the barest of elements. This is the tale of a charming group of bootleggers led by tough broad, Billie Bendix (Kelli O'Hara). One night while trying to find a place to stash their illegal "demon" rum, Billie meets playboy Jimmy Winter (Matthew Broderick) on his last night out before his fourth marriage. Billie and Jimmy immediately hit it off, yet Billie uses Jimmy by snatching his wallet. She decides the perfect place to stash the rum is Jimmy's never used mansion on Long Island. Of course, the very next day, the bootleggers are nearly caught when everyone shows up at the mansion for the wedding. The bootleggers disguise themselves as the mansion's new servants, the prohibitionists arrive as the family of the bride and Jimmy finds himself torn between his "don't touch until we're married" fiancee, Eileen Evergreen (Jennifer Laura Thompson) and his attraction to Billie. Madcap mayhem ensues until at the eleventh hour, Jimmy's mother (Estelle Parsons) arrives to set things right.
There's nothing wrong with relying on the Gershwin brothers songbook. It has been done before to good effect (see Crazy For You). This version uses a lot of songs not in the original Oh, Kay!, although the most famous song from that score is here, Someone To Watch Over Me. Yet, the score feels like it's trying too hard to include a lot of well known tunes, such as the orchestral Lady Be Good and Rhapsody in Blue. While a lot of the new songs are character appropriate it's just the first stage in a disjointed evening of theater.
Nice Work If You Can Get It attempts the absurdity of screwball comedy. The problem is that most of the performers are not giving the heightened acting necessary to consistently pull off the farcical elements. There are exceptions to the rule and it would not surprise me if there are several nominations from this talented casts' featured performers at this year's Tony Awards. First up is the astounding Judy Kaye as the crusading prohibitionist Duchess Estonia Dulworth who is forced to loosen up when she is purposefully dosed with the rum she detests. Miss Kaye dominates her scenes,her voice shatters the rafters and a highlight literally has her swinging from the chandelier. Michael McGrath as the bootlegger turned butler who torments her is quick with the witty remark and hilarious with the physical demands of the role. His partner in crime, Chris Sullivan's Duke is adorable as the lovable lunk with his eye on the showgirl (Robyn Hurder) he believes is out of his league. Jennifer Laura Thompson channels Madeleine Kahn as Eileen, which is understandable as the role seems torn from Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. Her Delishious is a comic gem in act one. Estelle Parsons commands attention in her brief appearance as the deux ex machina to the rescue.
Kelli O'Hara continues her reliability as one of the most talented leading ladies of musical theater of recent years. Yet here she seems almost too natural in her acting for the screwball elements required of Billie. There are two exceptions, the ironic staging of the ballad Someone To Watch Over Me and her hilarious attempts to seduce Jimmy in Treat Me Rough. Matthew Broderick is all charm as Jimmy Winter. The problem is that Jimmy is a playboy who falls in love at the drop of a hat. The role requires a more forceful personality than the one that Mr. Broderick has chosen to portray. Jimmy really should be in the mold of Bertie Wooster, not meek like Leo Bloom.
There lies the real problem with Nice Work If You Can Get It. At two and half hours, the show is about fifteen minutes too long. There are one too many couples dividing our attention and as a result a couple of the minor romantic pairings are underwritten. While Kathleen Marshall's choreography as rousing as the dancing she created for Anything Goes, the direction is just not madcap enough. A trip next door to One Man, Two Guvnors could enlighten just how a farcical comedy should be staged.
Nice Work If You Can Get It is being performed at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway. For tickets please visit www.telecharge.com.