Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
In recent years, there has been a wave of "jukebox musicals" hitting Broadway and London stages, where existing songs are combined with a new story to form a theatrical show. There have been hits (Mamma Mia - using the hits of ABBA), misses (Good Vibrations with songs by the Beach Boys), and those that fall somewhere in between (All Shook Up showcasing songs made famous by Elvis). With shows such as Jersey Boys, The Boy From Oz, Movin' Out, We Will Rock You, and many others also generally stuck with the "jukebox musical" label, many theatergoers assume this is a new phenomenon. However, this type of show has been around for years, and Crazy For You, currently being presented in a Mainstage Series production at the University of Cincinnati - Conservatory of Music (CCM) is considered one of the better examples. As demonstrated by the program's toe-tapping and energetic staging, this musical reaps the benefits of classic songs and splendid choreography, and just enough story to provide a framework for them both.
Crazy For You, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 1992 (over arguably more deserving nominees Falsettos and Jelly's Last Jam), is the story of Bobby Child, who longs to leave his boring life as a 1930s New York City banker for a career in the theater. When Child is sent to Nevada to foreclose on a rundown theater, he falls in love with Polly, the daughter of the building's owner. With the help of some friends from Zangler's Follies, Bobby decides to try to save the old theater instead, and in the meanwhile fulfill his own dreams of showbiz success and true love as well.
This show has an advantage over many of the more recent "jukebox musicals" because Crazy For You boasts a score by George and Ira Gershwin. These songs were written for characters (rather than just as pop songs), and of course are of impeccable quality. The old-fashioned sentiments of numbers such as "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "Embraceable You," and the unstoppable energy of "I Got Rhythm" are timeless, and the audience reacts gleefully as they recognize the old standards they know so well.
Crazy For You began life as an idea to revise the musical Girl Crazy, but bookwriter Ken Ludwig wisely decided to start mostly from scratch. He used six songs from the original show, added Gershwin tunes from several movies, and even found some recently discovered cut songs to incorporate. The story he constructed around these songs is a 1930s style boy-meets-girl valentine to shows of yesteryear. Hokey one-liners, sight gags, cases of mistaken identify, love-at-first sight pronouncements, extended dance sequences, and other old-school devices are aplenty. Even though the story is predictable and slight, it serves the songs and the dancing well, and that's what this show is all about.
Almost every musical on Broadway boasts a CCM graduate, and with good reason. These students are some of the most talented and well-trained anywhere. Leads Joseph Medeiros (Bobby Child) and Savannah M. Wise (Polly Baker) both already have Broadway credits to their names, he in Big and she as Young Cosette in Les Miserables. There is little doubt that these two seniors will be returning to the Great White Way soon. Mr. Medeiros supplies the required eagerness to the role and sings admirably. However, it is his smooth and skillful dancing, and gifts as a physical comedian, that makes this a standout performance. Ms. Wise sings with earnest emotion, and moves her character convincingly from hard-heartedness to tenderness. It is her dancing, however, that is most praiseworthy. Her grace and technique are admirable and put to wonderful use here. The rest of cast, whether it be in supporting roles or in the smallest ensemble part, do a great job in maintaining a high level of energy and executing the material with precision.
For audience members familiar with the Broadway version of the show (or the PBS broadcast featuring the same choreography from a production at PaperMill Playhouse) won't find much new in CCM's production. Director Aubrey Berg has wisely kept the show mostly intact in a close representation of the original. With a quick pace and fun tone throughout, the show works without much tinkering. Mr. Berg has extracted honest and charming performances from the students and most of the humor (save some groan worthy one-liners) works. Co-choreographers Diane Lala and Brandon Bieber have adeptly restaged original choreographer Susan Stroman's splendid dances, highlighted by her innovative use of props as showcased in "Slap That Bass" among others. Roger Grodsky brightly conducts the wonderful thirty-piece orchestra, which couldn't sound better.
The handsome set design by Paul Shortt gives New York a muted art deco look, while Nevada has splashes of vivid colors of the old West. Rebecca Senske's fun and attractive costumes likewise capture a kaleidoscope of colors, especially for the showgirls, and there is appropriate atmospheric lighting by James H. Gage.
Crazy For You is a great musical to show off the dancing ability of CCM's students, especially the talents of their two senior leads. In a production that is extremely faithful to the original Broadway production, this is a crowd-pleaser by all accounts. Crazy For You continues at CCM from through November 20, 2005.-- Scott Cain