We made one of our twice-a-year visits to New York theater last month to catch almost certain Tony nominees and a couple of shows that opened just after we were there last fall. Intermittently before the certain-to-be-strange June 11 Tony Awards, we will share reviews of seven productions and performances that may or may not win, may or may not tour. The shows are: Life of Pi, Parade, Sweeney Todd, Some Like It Hot, Kimberly Akimbo, Peter Pan Goes Wrong and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. Links to other reviews in this series can be found at the bottom as the reviews run. Last November, we reviewed contenders Leopoldstadt, & Juliet and Death of a Salesman.
By Bill Hirschman
It’s a safe bet that the stage floor of the Shubert Theatre has been reinforced, its speaker system upgraded and the back wall of the orchestra enlarged because management must have had to accommodate the pounding tap dancers, the resounding soloists and the whirlwind of music pouring out of pit at Some Like It Hot.
If you moan that theater ain’t what it used to be, rest assured that 87.3 percent of this production warmly recreates a good ol’ 1930s musical.
But acknowledge that the delightful tuneful score is actually brand-new, the driving choreography is far more complicated, the lights and sets are more complex and sophisticated, the direction is decidedly tongue-in-cheek if affectionately so, and yes, it has some 21st Century sexual identity and race-conscious elements that are intentionally included as a kind of gentle rebuff to the more provincial attitudes of classic American musicals clothed in black tie and gowns.
But if not for the last item, it’s like taking a trip back in a time machine. Tony nominators must have agreed because they gave it 13 nods, more than any other production.
One minor warning: This musical has borrowed only a few characters and even fewer plotlines from Billy Wilder’s brilliant 1959 film. But that’s it. And most of those loans have been massively overhauled to be barely recognizable. It basically has taken the title as a marketing tool. And it has no connection to an earlier attempt, the 1972 musical Sugar by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill.
What remains is two jazz musicians Joe (the fine Christian Borle more reined in than usual) and Jerry (a very tall and memorable J. Harrison Ghee) have witnessed a gangland murder in 1933 Chicago. They dress up like women “Josephine and Daphne” to hide out with an all-female band working their way to San Diego.
As band leader Sweet Sue (a powerful NaTasha Yvette Williams) watches and the gangsters pursue, “Josephine” falls for the gorgeous lead singer Sugar (Adrianna Hicks) and “Daphne” is courted by multi-millionaire Osgood (Kevin Del Aguila).
In one of many major alterations, smoothly done as if no one would notice, Jerry discovers he is gay and is amenable to Osgood’s pursuit, celebrated with a kick-butt announcement number “You Could Have Knocked Me Over With a Feather.” Several characters including Jerry, Sue and Sugar are Black (with Joe, who is pursuing Sugar, being white.)
The reimagined madcap script is by Matthew Lopez (the very serious The Inheritance and The Whipping Man) and Amber Ruffin. But just like a ‘30s musical, the plot really exists primarily to introduce a musical number whether it be a heartfelt solo ballad or a floor-pounding production number – few of which really have much to do with the story. In fact, you can tell each one is coming because in classic Broadway style, the band starts playing in a lead-up while a character is still saying their lines.
But you won’t care because the score and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray) are a sheer delight sparking adjectives ranging from scorching to syncopated to steamy to, above all, rousing. It’s a terrific homage to the period with echoes so strong that you might swear the songs were borrowed from an earlier show. Give a nod to the period perfect orchestrations by Charlie Rosen and Bryan Carter. And the large house band is clearly having as much fun as the cast who virtually glow from the stage during the musical numbers.
The show is right up the alley of director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon and The Drowsy Chaperone) memorable for rollicking and incandescent vibes.
This show will certainly tour, although you rightfully will wonder if it will include as large a cast and band, or as expansive superlative visuals from costumes to scenery.
The production received Tony nominations for best musical, book, original score, actor for both Borle and Ghee, featured actor for Del Aguil, featured actress for Williams, scenic design, costume design, lighting design, direction, choreography and orchestrations.
Review of Life of Pi, click here.
Review of Sweeney Todd, click here.
Review of Peter Pan Goes Wrong, click here.
Review of Parade, click here