Wednesday, April 25, 2012

REVIEW: Nice Work If You Can Get It

Review of the Saturday, April 7th matinee preview at the Imperial Theatre in New York City.  Starring Matthew Broderick, Kelli O'Hara, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Judy Kaye, Michael McGrath and Estelle Parsons.  Music and Lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin.  Book by Joe DePietro.  Choreography and Direction by Kathleen Marshall.  2 hours, 20 minutes including intermission.

Grade: C-

I saw a somewhat early preview of the "new" musical Nice Work If You Can Get It, and, unless the creative team was willing at that point to cut some characters altogether and revamp every single dance number, I'm pretty sure what I saw is pretty much what opened last night at the Imperial Theatre.  A fan, generally, of old fashioned "new" musicals - I've seen the gold standard of the type, Me and My Girl eight times and another "new" Gershwin musical, Crazy for You, at least five times - I went into the show with great expectations.  I should have known better, what with the Queen of Half-Assery, Kathleen Marshall, at the helm.  Just like her inexplicably popular hit Anything Goes, the cast and only some of the material here elevates otherwise pedestrian blocking and dance numbers that are shockingly repetitive and never, not once, take off.

The problem with all of this bland, middle-of-the-road-ness is that the genre being depicted here - the screwball comedy from the 30's that celebrates the 20's - demands all out reckless abandon and non-stop giddy fun, just short of over the top.  That means silly, groan-while-you-laugh barrages of jokes, impossible situations, farce, physical comedy, huge numbers full of dashing gents and beautiful chorines and just a dash of boy-meets-girl-you-know-they'll-get-together-no-matter-how-improbable romance.  Occasionally, Nice Work has all of those things.  But it is too long between laughs, and the farce, physical comedy and dancing never quite get to the heights they need to.  It isn't for a lack of trying.

The Cast of Nice Work If You Can Get It

Joe DePietro's book, based on a previous musical, Oh, Kay!, has all of the elements required - the main characters are on both sides of a spectrum (in this case legal and economic), several subplots that inevitably match up pairs of even more people from both sides of that spectrum, a loose connection to show biz (giving an excuse to dance), a funny take on politics of the time (in this case, prohibition and the typical punching bag, Republican conservatives) and a fantasy sequence.  It is all there, and to his credit, DePietro has created a pretty smooth sequence of events that never feels like things are crammed in.  But the book also never rises to anything that even approaches a frenzy of excitement and good times.  And half the fun of these throw back trunk musicals is those "ah-ha" laughs when a familiar tune is cleverly inserted into the proceedings - think about the first time you saw Mamma Mia! or even Jersey Boys.  Despite some really decent songs culled from the Gershwin songbook that seem ripe for just that sort of thing, those "ah-ha" moments never come, not once.  Sixteen opportunities missed.

Technically, the show looks cheap and dull (and even ugly).  I know times are tough, but this should be an extravaganza of 42nd Street proportions.  Derek McLane's set, made up of a garish curly cue proscenium frame, and a "mansion" of rooms in ugly shades of pink, green and magenta.  Throw in a few backdrops and one can imagine how future high school productions will look.  The lighting by Peter Kaczorowski is serviceable, but nothing special.  On the plus side, Brian Ronan's sound design is crystal clear and very well-balanced.

One thing you can't quibble with is the quality of the Gershwin songs, they are classics.  And they are a delight to the ears as orchestrated by Bill Elliott and played by an 18 piece orchestra.  Still, you can quibble with how they are utilized, and quite frankly, they are mostly a disappointment, and point up the main problem the entire show: the direction and choreography of Kathleen Marshall.

"Sweet and Lowdown"

The cast is saddled with bland blocking, forced, stereotypical comedy, and dance steps that are completely uninspired approximations of Jazz Age.  Worse yet, they are repetitive and even rip off Marshall's own previous work.  As she has no definitive style (in that when you see one of her numbers you say, "Oh! That's a Marshall move!" way like you can with Fosse, Tune or Stroman), that she is now recycling her own material makes it all the more bland.  Take the opening number, "Sweet and Lowdown."  It is a small, insinuating number at a speakeasy, not a huge, let's-get-the-ball-rolling crowd-pleaser.  And despite the fact that the entire chorus, plus the leading man and a subplot character is in it, the notion that 14 people sometimes doesn't look like much hits you hard and diminishes what little impact the number might have had.  And, if you've seen Anything Goes, you'll have that odd sense of deja vu.  It looks and moves like a lackluster "Blow, Gabriel, Blow," right down to similar costumes provided in both cases by Martin Pakledinaz (in fact, all of his costumes in this show appear to be recycled from the other show, only cheaper.  Much cheaper.)  Act two opens with an instrumental, "Lady Be Good" to which the dozen chorus members go through a series of moves evocative of the era of The Great Gatsby.  Charleston moves and some foxtrot formations go on in repeat, over and over.  Even as I write this it sounds maybe exciting.  But it isn't.  The repetition is just that, and it simply does not build into anything even remotely interesting.  The day I saw the show, it got a polite hand and the dancers weren't even panting.  Two chances to start an act with something to get the audience hooked, two more opportunities missed. (The same can be said for the dull act ending numbers, too.)

The Ensemble

The rest of the staging is as you'd expect, an approximation of a Fred and Ginger number, including dancing on a staircase; an innocent romp around a bedroom, walking on the bed, tripping over chairs; a two-door farce scene involving a fast-paced service of a full-course meal.  Typical and not even close to inspired.  There are exactly two times in the whole show where I thought, "Hey, that's creative!"  One is an unexpected comic bit with a gun during the ballad "Someone Who'll Watch Over Me," and the other during "Delishious," involving a bubble bath full of more than bubbles.

Matthew Broderick and Kelli O'Hara

The biggest asset the show has is its cast, all of whom give everything they have to get things going.  Both leads seem to know what they are up against and gamely give it their best.  Matthew Broderick does his best to balance his trademark "aw shucks-self-aware-nerd" shtick with the riggers of being a leading song and dance man.  He actually sings and dances pretty well.  One imagines that later in the run, when he really knows the show and loosens up, he'll be even better.  And he does have a funny sort of chemistry with Kelli O'Hara.  Her mere presence elevates every scene she's in, and her old-school vocal stylings are perfectly suited to the score.  She's especially charming in the more serious, romantic scenes.  But she also looks awkward in the scenes where she must be convincing as a bootlegger on the lamb.  She plays it straight, refusing to acknowledge the obvious: she's not much of a comedienne and couldn't be butch if her life depended on it.  As great as she is, O'Hara is not an edgy ingenue.  Ingenue, yes.  Edgy, no way.

Judy Kaye and Michael McGrath

Jennifer Laura Thompson and Company

There is better news on the supporting roles front, with four actors really standing out and giving the show what little oomph it has.  Michael McGrath is a riot as a bootlegger disguised as a butler.  His timing is impeccable, and he has a way with even the dumbest jokes.  Tony winner Judy Kaye completely steals every scene she's in.  She has been given some of the choicest bits to play as the stiff as a board Prohibitionist (her name, Duchess Estonia Dulworth, says it all), and Kaye gamely goes for it all with gusto, be it singing on a moving ladder or swinging drunk from a chandelier.  Estelle Parsons does what she can, screeching her way through the final scenes of act two.  She is loud, brash and quite funny.  Though I have to wonder if it is the script or the actress that calls for a mother to call her son Jimmy by the name "Jamie."  Either way, it isn't funny.  But my favorite actress in the show is Jennifer Laura Thompson, who is a scream as the soon-to-be fourth wife of Broderick's character.  She also gets the best scene in the show, "Delishious," where she sings while taking a bath.  Watching her try not to react to the chorus girls and boys that spring out of the bubbles shows us in one scene everything this show could have been.  It is the only time the show is even close to "big" or creative.

Chris Sullivan and Robyn Hurder

This dull show feels every bit of its two and a half hour running time.  One thing that could have been excised easily are two sub-sub characters, a second bootlegger and a chanteuse who serve only to add more clunky jokes and some uninspired running gags.  No offense to Chris Sullivan, who does the part well enough, but is totally unnecessary.  On the other hand, Robyn Hurder as that chanteuse would be an even easier cut.  She has zero stage presence, looks uncomfortable 100% of the time, and, to be totally honest has no business singing in a Broadway show.

I really hope that someday I'll see a Kathleen Marshall show that makes me understand why she is a critical darling.  I have left every show of hers feeling exactly the same way: the show is decent, but never better than mediocre.  How I wish I could say, "Nice work on N ice Work, Kathleen!"  But I just can't.

(Photos by Joan Marcus)

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