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Encores! No, No, Nanette

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Mara Davi and Shonn Wiley
Photo by Joan Marcus.

So time machines exist after all! Think what a boon this will be to floundering history majors and nostalgia buffs, who can at last catapult themselves into the past as many years as they like - say, 83. That's the number you need to get to 1925, and the setting on which the tauntingly temporal thingamajig is stuck through Monday while it's improbably lodged backstage at City Center.

It warps so many holes in the space-time continuum during the Encores! production of No, No, Nanette, you have real reason to fear being impaled by Atilla the Hun's spear if he goes berserk during the curtain call. But even if you survive that, you'll have to adjust to life in a bygone era; Cynicism, nuance, and the occasional grit or grime play such vital roles in the theatre of 2008 that to be stripped of them this completely is to flaunt death by exposure.

But this sweetest and pastel-iest Encores! in memory is more often than not worth the risk. Director Walter Bobbie, conductor Rob Fisher, concert adapter David Ives, and choreographer Randy Skinner have taken Burt Shevelove's 1971 version of the 1925 Vincent Youmans-Irving Caesar-Otto Harbach-Frank Mandel musical and broken it down to its component components. In short: songs, lame jokes, and dances. Lots of dances.

Cry-Baby's gyrating and the roller-skating down Xanadu way are mere pigeon feed compared to Skinner's steps, the liveliest imaginable unironic resuscitations of the carefree 20th-century hoofing aesthetic. Filling the stage with flying feet and his cast's faces with tooth-beaming smiles, he sends them sailing through more dance breaks than should be allowable by law - seemingly, after every single song. The chorus kids never stop moving, whether throughout Art Deco apartments or the beaches of the New Jersey shore, though sometimes they can be shown up by one of the resident old-timers on hand.

Sandy Duncan
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The champion in this regard is Sandy Duncan, who slips effortlessly into the metal-soled shoes the role's re-creator, Ruby Keeler. Duncan has apparently lost none of the impish verve that made her a generation defining Peter Pan in the 1970s: When she first sets to taps for "I Want to Be Happy," she jolts herself and the show to life with a kinetic physicality and personality that suggest she still derives much of her joy from the thrill of the flap.

Beth Leavel, whose Tony for the 20s-styled The Drowsy Chaperone was obviously preparing her for this frothy confection, and Michael Berresse ease no less comfortably into their own song-and-dance proclivities, gleaming and cavorting about the stage with each other or any number of the alluringly youthful choristers. Mara Davi, all effusive spunk in the eternally scolded title role, and dashing Shonn Wiley as her impossibly patient lover, handle their hefty juvenile singing chores with grace and good humor.

With songs like these, how could anyone not? Youmans's melodies and Caesar and Harbach's lyrics blend the then-viable operetta form with genre-spanning musical-comedy optimism to bewitching effect, as retreated with the savory MGM-size orchestrations by Ralph Burns and Luther Henderson. Wind-kissed ballads ("I've Confessed to the Breeze") for the young lovers and scorching torch ("The ‘Where-Has-My-Hubby-Gone' Blues" for the scorned wife), "You Can Dance With Any Girl" for the sparring Berresse and Leavel who insist on going home together, and of course the immortal soft-shoe of "Tea for Two," service for 20 onstage and jelly-covered crumpets for modern audiences starving for such simple, non-nutritive pleasures.

But wish this was still a model for musicals only at your own peril. Shevelove's Playbill bio insists he "restructured" Harbach and Mandel's "lengthy and involved book," but his work and Ives's rework still makes Grease look like a comparatively complex psychological study. The first act contrives to get all the smart New York set to weekend in Atlantic City, the second to collide them at the most inopportune moments, and the third (most implausibly) to end everything quickly and happily enough to prevent unwanted infestation by mental engagement.

So forget whether it's Berresse's suave problem-solver or Charles Kimbrough's altruistic Bible printer who's tarrying (or maybe not) with three out-of-town girls (the slam-bang-shimmy trio of Nancy Anderson, Jennifer Cody, and Angel Reda). Don't fret over why people are so negative to that likeable young thing of the title. And whatever you do, don't waste a second wondering what everyone is singing about - that this all originally went down two years before Show Boat and 18 before Oklahoma! could not be more clear.

Everything about this show and production caters to exactly the exhausted executive Youmans and the others sought to woo in 1925. But if in many ways we've moved on, the show still works and still surprises on its most basic of levels, especially when it moves aside so its stars work their crowd one on one. This courtesy even extends to Rosie O'Donnell, who despite having wound her way into a handful of Broadway titles has never displayed any noticeable singing, acting, or movement talent. But her timing is pointedly perfect for playing the smart-cracking maid (who else?), and she nets the briefest of tap solos just before the final curtain. And, what do you know, she's not bad.

Like everyone else, she's caught in the exhilaration of creating entertainment for entertainment's sake. Musicals as mindless as this one are practically extinct today, something for which most of today's authors and audiences should rejoice. But this kind of giddy, unabashed pointlessness is fine fodder for a spring weekend and the skills of the Broadway-caliber Encores! Orchestra. No, No, Nanette's warming score, and the insinuating tap soundtrack destined to linger in your ears for the foreseeable future, are great ways to make yourself happy - if certainly not smarter.

Encores! No, No, Nanette
Through May 12
City Center Main Stage, 130 West 56th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: City Center

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