A scene from Nice Work If You Can Get It. Photo: Joan Marcus.
I recently took in a couple of Broadway shows set during the glory days of the 1920s and 30s that feature classics from the Great American Songbook.
First up was Nice Work If You Can Get It by Joe DiPietro with music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin. Nice Work takes place in Prohibition New York where Jimmy Winter, a carefree playboy preparing to marry for the third or fourth time (he isn't sure which), meets a pretty bootlegger named Billie Bendix who's avoiding the law. Billie decides that Jimmy's empty Long Island mansion is the perfect place to stash her latest supply of gin but her plans are foiled when she and her two cohorts, Cookie McGee and Duke Mahoney, are interrupted by the arrival of Jimmy with his fiancée (the “finest interpreter of modern dance in the world”) and her senator father and teetotaler aunt, the Duchess Estonia Duckworth. Throw in some party revelers, a suspicious cop, and Jimmy’s mother and chaos ensues while Jimmy and Billie fall in love.
The plot has all the elements of a screwball comedy, which is not surprising as the book’s based loosely on Oh, Kay! by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton. Yet the book is the main problem with the show. You get the feeling that DiPietro decided to throw in every plot twist he could think of along with corny jokes that are just that, corny.
And yet it’s really hard to be displeased when you're listening to Gershwin tunes and Nice Work is filled with some of their best songs, including the title song, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” and “Fascinating Rhythm.” The music makes up for a lot of the show's shortcomings and reminds us just how brilliant the Gershwins were.
Kelli O'Hara and Matthew Broderick. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Jimmy is played by Matthew Broderick who injects a dry sense of humour into the role. Broderick is not a song and dance man by trade. His singing is fine (think Fred Astaire), especially in the quieter scenes like when he sings “Do, Do, Do” while strumming a ukulele. The dancing though is another matter. When Broderick is in a number with the other dancers, his lack of dance skills are noticeable but his charm makes up for it.
Kelli O’Hara on the other hand has no such problems. Her dancing is effortless and her soprano voice quite beautiful and a nice contrast to her tomboy outfits. She also gets one of the best scenes of the play when she sings the heartbreaking “Someone To Watch Over Me” while lovingly cradling a gun.
Yet the musical is owned by some of its other players. Michael McGrath, who plays Cookie, gives a convincing impression of a 1930s sidekick and got some of the biggest laughs of the evening, and Judy Kaye as the Duchess whose discovery of alcohol leads her to literally swing from the chandelier was a standout. Not surprising, both took home Tonys. There’s also the end of show entrance by the venerable Estelle Parsons as Jimmy’s mother.
Despite its weaknesses I enjoyed the show because let’s face it, spending a few hours listening to Gershwin tunes in a theatre ‘s wonderful.
Reno Sweeney and the sailors in Anything Goes. Photo: Joan Marcus.
A much better musical was Anything Goes, which I saw a few weeks later. Based on an update by John Weidman and Timothy Crouse of the original book by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, it’s another screwball musical but this time set on the high seas in the 1930s. Reno Sweeney is a nightclub performer who is headed to England for a job. The man she’s in love with, Billy Crocker, stows away to be near the girl he loves, Hope Harcourt, who’s headed to England with her mother and fiancée, Lord Evelyn Oakleigh. Along for the ride is Billy’s drunken boss, a couple of Chinese men recently converted to Christianity, a gangster’s moll, and Public Enemy #13, Moonface Martin. Like in any good screwball, all misunderstandings are ironed out in the end and everyone ends up with the right person.
As with Nice Work, Anything Goes’ songs are hard to beat. The best of Cole Porter is here, starting off with “I Get a Kick Out of You” and including “Easy to Love,” “It’s De-lovely,” and “You’re the Top.” Act I ends with a huge production of the title song with the entire cast singing and tap-dancing. That one scene alone was worth the cost of the ticket. Act II keeps the action moving with a red-hot production of “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” which had me practically bouncing in my seat.
Jessica Stone performs "Buddie, Beware." Photo: Joan Marcus.
The night I went Stephanie J. Block, who normally plays Reno, was out sick so her understudy, Kiira Schmidt, went on. She made a valiant effort and despite stumbling over a few lines was still enjoyable. Yet I couldn’t help wondering what Block’s performance would have been like. The impish Joel Grey as Moonface Martin, who’s disguised as a priest while on board, was a favourite of the crowd. A natural ham, Grey played his scenes for every last laugh and was very sweet as the man who’s upset he’s so far down on the FBI’s most wanted list.
The rest of the cast were great but one of my favourite performances was by Jessica Stone who was spot on as Moonface’s wisecracking partner-in-crime Erma. Her performance of “Buddie, Beware” with the ship’s sailors was hilarious.
And let’s not forget the set and costumes. The ship, which dominated the stage, was a great Art Deco backdrop for the antics of the characters whose costumes were elegant and perfect. Besides, how can you not love a bunch of singing and dancing sailors? The whole show was just delovely.
Nice Work If You Can Get It plays at the Imperial Theatre. For more information, visit their website here.
Anything Goes plays at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre through September 9, 2012. For more information, visit their website here.