Report From New York City: Nice Is Exactly the Word for “Nice Work If You Can Get It”

Or Coming To A Theater Near You
(Or Not)

By Bill Hirschman

Welcome to our semi-annual scouting trip for shows likely to appear in South Florida in a local production or national tour — or shows you should make a point of seeing/avoiding on your next trip. Among them:  Leap of Faith (starring Miami’s Raul Esparza, just closed), Other Desert Cities (announced for Actors Playhouse next season),  Peter and the Starcatcher (based on books by the Herald’s Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson), Once, Nice Work If You Can Get It, The Columnist, End of the Rainbow, Venus in Fur and a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire (recently-extended with an African-American cast). See links at the bottom of each story for previous reviews in the series.

Today’s Review: Nice Work If You Can Get It

Charm, in fact, does go a long, long way, especially when it’s partnered with large dollops of professional polish. A classic example is this classic production of this faux classic musical Nice Work If You Can Get It.

With virtually the entire Gershwin songbook at their disposal, the creators of this delightfully entertaining trifle have affectionately constructed a 21st Century send-up of those 1930s musicals with a ludicrous farcical plot and a wealth of catchy melodies that are still standards 80 years on. It is exactly what you expect to be and a little bit more.

The producers have cherry-picked a talented team starting with the winsome songbird Kelli O’Hara, the winsome leading man Matthew Broderick, director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall, music chief David Chase and the book writer Joe DiPietro who created an original script.  Sort of.

The team picked 19 songs that include nearly every one you can name off the top of your head in 30 seconds (such as “Fascinating Rhythm”) and a few you may not have heard of.  Plus they’ve worked in snatches of 13 other instrumental pieces as filler, such as “Rhapsody in Blue.”

You can’t fault the creative team for the thinness of the plot or the unalloyed sentiment of these old warhorses. They tweak them before you can with wry meta-references and gentle jabs, even lampooning how the old musicals dropped in a song that really had nothing to do with the plot. A favorite moment has to be bootlegger O’Hara providing a dreamy creamy “Someone To Watch Over Me” while cocking her lever-action rifle as punctuation as she keeps an eye peeled for the cops.

The script by Joe DiPietro (Over the River and Into the Woods and I Love You, You’re Perfect Etc.) is an original pastiche/homage to those silly frothy books written for ‘30s musicals. In fact, he gives credit in the program to being inspired by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. But anyone who has seen a revival or film of these shows intact knows that their stories would never satisfy today. DiPietro has applied a lot of craft to pull this off.

The story posits charmingly tomboyish bootlegger Billie Bendix (O’Hara) hiding her latest shipment in the basement of the Long Island estate of charming wastrel playboy Jimmy Winter (Broderick) who can’t figure out if he has divorced his latest wife or not. Also on hand are Billie’s charming henchmen (Michael McGrath and Chris Sullivan) who pose as a butler and cook to watch over the haul, as well as Jimmy’s ditsy snob of a fiancée (Jennifer Laura Thompson) and her Prohibitionist aunt (Judy Kaye) – plus another half-dozen stereotypical madcaps, plus 12 chorus boys and girls. There’s even Estelle Parsons in a tiny deus ex machine role that comes so late in the show, you forget she’s listed on the marquee. If you haven’t figured out who she’s playing and at least one of her secrets, you haven’t been paying attention.

The chief joy of this show is seeing and hearing the jaunty Gershwin tunes given a lush and loving mounting with solid singers (save one), gorgeous arrangements, a note-perfect orchestra delivering the kind of full sound you don’t hear much anymore on Broadway, and Marshall’s pull-the-stops-out choreography.

And there’s that cast. This role isn’t much of a challenge for Broderick: It’s half Ferris Bueller and half Leo Bloom, so it’s solidly in his wheelhouse. But with that not-totally-unaware puppy dog expression and that deceptively precise comic timing, he can make almost any line sound funny.

Yes, his singing is just passable and his dancing isn’t all that crisp; he doesn’t pretend to be Ben Vereen. But that works because he’s our stand-in and we couldn’t do any better. Besides, he’s clearly having so much fun that his enthusiasm is infectious.

O’Hara just adds yet another triumph to her unbroken evolution from ingénue to Broadway’s leading leading lady with that ineffable loveliness and an angelic voice that is guaranteed to break hearts with such ballads as “But Not For Me.”  She also exposes a subdued comic sense that she obviously relishes but doesn’t get to unleash often. Like the entire show, she says classic lines like “Love is for suckers,” in such a way that you know that the actress and the production know what a chestnut it is.

Looking at the couple’s broad smiles and twinkling eyes, you can tell the two actors obviously like each other, but they don’t have the supernatural chemistry that O’Hara had with Harry Connick Jr. in The Pajama Game. It doesn’t help that Broderick has 14 years on O’Hara even with that boyish face.

Still, the high point of the show is their Fred and Ginger pas de deux to “’S Wonderful” as they glide, swirl and caper up and over the furniture. Neither would pretend to have half of the terpsichorean chops of any of the people in their ensemble. But again, that’s what makes it so endearing, seeing people dancing the way we expect we would if we could conquer our inhibitions. It produces an almost Pavlovian ovation.

While Marshall has several opportunities to show off her choreographic skills, her vision really emerges in the second act opener of “Lady Be Good” when the dancing corps of nightclub chorines and federal revenue agents have the stage to themselves to cavort.

The supporting cast is equally good, especially McGrath who seems to be channeling Jackie Gleason, Kaye who seems to be standing in for Margaret Dumont and Thompson doing Madeline Kahn in What’s Up Doc?

The show is endlessly predictable, but that’s part of its appeal, like the familiar feel of slipping on a pair of comfortable slippers.

Doubtless, this one will tour in South Florida with a few less chorus girls and more modest sets. But it really needs charismatic, skilled performers to keep this from being just a warm bath that will lull you to sleep. So, once again, if you’re in New York and get a chance to see Broderick, O’Hara, McGrath and Kaye, make a point of it.

Previous reviews in the series:
Leap of Faith, click here.
Once, click here
End of the Rainbow, click here
A Streetcar Named Desire, click here.
Other Desert Cities, Click here

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