The Saturday before Thanksgiving I had the opportunity to see the new, Kathleen Marshall directed, musical Nice Work If You Can Get It. This diary will be a review of the show. Below that I am including a couple of snippets from Ben Brantley's New York Times review, the gold standard for New York theater. Below that is a YouTube clip of the show.
Nice Work If You Can Get It is a new musical based on the 1926 Gershwin musical Oh Kay! It follows a similar plot line but incorporates most of Gershwin’s classic songs and orchestrations. The play revolves around a philandering playboy, Jimmy Winter (Matthew Broderick), who is about to embark on his fourth marriage, this time to Eileen Evergreen (Jennifer Laura Thomson), the daughter of Duchess Estonia Dulworth (Judy Kaye) and Senator Max Evergreen (Terry Beaver). Jimmy meets up with Billie Bendix (Kelli O’Hara), a tough bootlegger, on the night of his bachelor party. Billie, on the run from the law and looking for a place to hide her 400 cases of booze, is told by Jimmy that he never uses his house on Long Island. Billie and her co-conspirators, Cookie (played by understudy Jeffrey Schecter at the performance I saw) and Duke (Chris Sullivan), go out to Long Island to hide the booze, not realizing Jimmy and Eileen have come to the house for their honeymoon. After being caught, Billie and Cookie pretend to be the maid and the butler.
Outside the house, Cookie and Duke are discussing how they are going to get the booze out of the house without being caught when one of Jimmy’s flirtations, Jeannie Muldoon (Robyn Hurder), arrives and overhears them. She hears Duke’s name and thinks he is a real Duke. Immediately she falls for him, believing that if she marries him she will become the Queen of England.
Jimmy, much to the chagrin of his mother, who has forced him into marrying Eileen, continues to try and indulge in the company of the chorus girls that follow him everywhere. He does this because Eileen has little attraction for him. The Duchess and the Senator, who is also a judge, arrive at Jimmy’s house after getting a lead that Billie and her gang are shacked up with their booze out on Long Island, only to learn that Jimmy is still married to his third wife. After finding the gang at the house, the judge threatens to arrest them and Jimmy until Billie reveals a telegram proving that Jimmy’s previous marriage has been annulled.
While all this is going on, Billie and Jimmy slowly begin to realize they are falling in love. However, they engage in a tug-of-war over their feelings as the drama around them unfolds. Jimmy is to be married to Eileen, and Billie is trying to keep her secret hidden.
The show continues to twist and turn with many hijinks straight out of a rip-roaring 20's musical comedy.
The show opens with a number of sweet & stylized songs which lead you to believe the show will be one sappy love song after another. Even the Gershwin classic “Someone to Watch Over Me” is restyled to be an over-the-top comedy love song with Billie readying a shotgun knowing the cops are onto her and her gang. There is an outlandish scene midway through Act I with Eileen in a bathtub singing “Delishious” with first female then male dancers coming out of the tub prancing around. The highlights of Act I are Jimmy and Billie performing "'S Marvelous," and the scenes with Cookie and Duke as they bring the show back to Earth and display impeccable comedic timing.
Act II, which opens with an intricate and well performed Charleston number, foreshadows a better act to come. What follows is a well-done musical comedy in the great Broadway tradition. The writing and orchestrations tighten up, and the show focuses more on the talents of the supporting cast rather than resting on the laurels of the main stars. The pace of the show quickens, moving fluidly from scene to scene without allowing the dialogue to meander.
Matthew Broderick performs in typical Broderick style that he has been doing since Ferris Buellers' Day Off. His voice is good and his comedic timing is there, but everything is done in an aww-shucks manner. Kelli O'Hara takes on the role of Billie well. Her voice shines throughout the show, and she shows off her acting range, going from tomboy to vixen to spurned love interest. However, by the end of the show you feel as if they were only there to provide the storyline that showcases the supporting cast: The supporting cast outshines both Mr. Broderick and Ms. O'Hara and provides most of the highlights throughout the show.
Judy Kaye and Jeffrey Schecter steal every scene they are in with their comedic interplay and superb vocals. Chris Sullivan and Robyn Hurder perform a romantic and comedic version of “Blah, Blah, Blah.” Stanley Wayne Mathis, as Chief Berry, provides many laughs, especially during the classic “Let's Call the Whole Thing Off.”
Kathleen Marshall's choreography is very intricate and nuanced throughout the show -- including for Mr. Broderick and Ms. O'Hara, neither of whom are trained dancers, although they perform a believable foxtrot to “'S Marvelous.” The background dancers excellently execute choreography that ranges from Charlestons to jazz to traditional Broadway-style numbers. Marshall's direction is decent but not up to her previous works. You get a feeling she figures the star power, songs and choreography would keep the audiences coming.
The set design is simple and could fit in any time period in any upper class beach location. The lighting is mostly bright and cheerful to go along with zany plot. The costumes, which feature lots of pastels and creams, are stylized in the typical 20's style. Three piece suits for the men and Flapper gowns for the women.
All in all, it was an enjoyable show. I would recommend it to any Gershwin fans interested in new takes on his classic songs, or for anyone who wants to experience a Broadway musical comedy in the tradition of the Golden Age of Broadway. For regular theater goers, it's not a must-see; there are better offerings out there.
(Disclosure: I am a close friend of Kelli O'Hara's)
Mr. Broderick’s comic persona in recent years has solidified into that of an abstracted, inhibited, adorably passive nerd, a type he exploited beautifully in “The Producers.”
Such droll, straight-faced passivity doesn’t match up as neatly with the philandering hedonist he plays here. He sings and dances pleasantly and competently, but rather vaguely, too, as if his thoughts were elsewhere.
Billie is both of the people and one of the boys. This makes sense, since Ms. O’Hara has already shown a winning way with hoydenish, down-to-earth parts in the marvelous revivals of “The Pajama Game” (staged by Ms. Marshall) and “South Pacific.”
But Ms. O’Hara’s strength is in sincerity, in finding through song the soul of conflicted characters. (Her voice, for the record, is heavenly here.) Billie is a part for a sexy shtick artist who sells her own personality.
As Jimmy’s pretentious fiancée, a terpsichorean artiste named Eileen Evergreen, Jennifer Laura Thompson appears to be copying Madeline Kahn’s delicious cartoons of prissy heiresses from screwball comedies. This means that what we have here is a pastiche of a pastiche and, like much of “Nice Work” itself, it feels ersatz.
The immortal Gershwin score is done luscious justice by the orchestra. (David Chase is the music supervisor.) Derek McLane’s sets and Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes brim with flash and color. And as fluent as always in the period she means to evoke, Ms. Marshall has drilled her agile dancers to perform every possible variation on the Charleston.
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