Nice Work If You Can Get It
Librettist Joe DiPietro was commissioned by the Gershwin estate to turn the bare bones of Oh, Kay! (1926) into a full-on book musical, and, after adding and dropping characters, updating the comedy, and rewriting most of the dialogue, the result is an homage to the glory days of musical theatre, if you will. With a plot that features serial marriage, speakeasies, bootleggers, and an illegitimate child, Nice Work... still manages to exude innocence and charm, perhaps especially because the plot is decidedly an old-fashioned throwback.
When Jimmy Winter (Joey Sorge) meets rum-runner Billie Bendix (Amanda Lea LaVergne), he is having one last night of debauchery with a bunch of chorus girls before his wedding (#3 or #4?) to Eileen Evergreen (Breighanna Minnema), the spoiled socialite daughter of blustery, crusading Senator Max Evergreen (Steve Brady). Although Jimmy is smitten, Billie's only interest in him is real estate; with the police hot on her trail, she needs a place to stash 400 cases of bootleg gin and he's got a Long Island beach house with a cellar. Billie and her henchmen Cookie McGee (hilarious James Beaman) and Duke Mahoney (Aaron Fried, a soft-hearted big lug) store the booze, but the newlyweds arrive for their honeymoon and mistake the trio for household staff. McGee becomes the outspoken butler, Duke pretends to be the chef, and Billie is the Cockney maid. It is an understatement to say that complications ensue.
The story benefits by the insertion of the classic songs, but even the lesser known and silly ones move things along and give the secondary characters their chance to shine. Minnema has an operatic voice and impressive comic chops that are on full display in a Busby Berkeley-style bathtub scene ("Delishious"), and she knows how to push all the right buttons to make us root against her. Fried is totally darling when Duke, who is less than articulate, professes his love ("Blah, Blah, Blah") to tough cookie Jeannie Muldoon (Elyse Collier, terrific), and Valton Jackson (Chief Berry) finally gets to show off his beautiful voice and get one of the girls near the end of the second act.
LaVergne hits the heights on the charm meter and is a talented triple threat. She starts out as a rough-around-the-edges tomboy type, but aspires to be a femme fatale (with comic results) when she falls for wealthy playboy Jimmy. LaVergne and Sorge starred opposite each other in Ogunquit Playhouse's Singin' in the Rain (2009) and it shows in their chemistry in both their book scenes and when they dance together (Fred and Ginger who?). Sorge has a smooth, sweet voice and makes it look easy to play the clueless swain, usually in way over his head with the women in his life, starting with his domineering mother, Millicent Winter (Valerie Harper).
Although she does not appear until late in the show, the audience is on the collective edge of their seats anticipating the arrival of Harper. Raben's staging rightfully allows her a grand entrance, posing upstage atop a short flight of stairs in her leopard hat and coat, and pausing to soak in the waves of appreciative applause. Her smile lights up the room and her delivery is that of a pro, so it barely registered that she was a little shaky on some of her lines. Just being on stage is a tremendous accomplishment and clearly a joy for her. [In light of Harper's recent hospitalization, ensemble member Heather Stinson, who played the role on a national tour, will go on for her.]
Sally Struthers, the other consummate pro and Ogunquit Playhouse regular in the cast, steals the show. She is pitch perfect as Duchess Estonia Dulworth, the Senator's sister and a staunch advocate of temperance who travels around with her own Vice Squad to rid society of "Demon Rum." Her comic timing is impeccable, whether she is spitting out a line or wordlessly mugging, and she has great chemistry with everyone, but especially with Beaman. I can't say for sure which of the two is funnier, but the energy and antics are outrageous when their characters are onstage. In 2007, Beaman was devastatingly good as Albin in La Cage aux Folles at the Playhouse, and his Cookie characterization is also one for the ages.
The production is heightened by art deco elements in the scenic design (Derek McLane, Shoko Kambara), interesting lighting (Richard Latta) that distinguishes the gritty street life of the bootleggers from the swanky digs of Jimmy and Eileen, and the numerous elaborate costumes (Martin Pakledinaz) worn by the chorus boys and girls. Reuter gets a big, full sound from his octet, and Kevin Heard's design provides a good balance between the voices and the musicians. Hickey's eclectic choreography is exciting and well-danced by the ensemble (Madison Mitchell, Ashlea Potts, Heather Stinson, Kristina Miller, Noelle Marion,Willie Dee, Matthew J. Kilgore, Matthew J. Vargo, Andrew Metzgar, Kent Zimmerman).
Nice Work If You Can Get It takes place in 1927, toward the end of Prohibition, but the political jokes that DiPietro inserts (unfortunately) still ring true. However, those references are few and far between. This musical comedy is heavy on the music and the comedy, and the politics of family, love and romance occupy everyone's attention. Best of all, it ends happily with the full company taking their bows to "They All Laughed." Get to the Ogunquit Playhouse by August 15th and you'll do the same.
Nice Work If You Can Get It, performances through August 15, 2015, at John Lane's Ogunquit Playhouse, 10 Main Street (Route 1), Ogunquit, ME; Box Office 207-646-5511 or www.ogunquitplayhouse.org.
Music by George Gershwin, Lyrics by Ira Gershwin, Book by Joe DiPietro, Inspired by Material by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse; Original Broadway Set Design, Derek McLane; Set Design, Shoko Kambara; Costume Design, Martin Pakledinaz; Lighting Design, Richard Latta; Sound Design, Kevin Heard; Wig and Make-Up Design, Britt E. Griffith; Casting, Anthony C. Daniel; Production Stage Manager, John "JP" Pollard; Assistant Stage Manager, Suzanne Apicella; Associate Producer, Brian J. Swasey; Production Manager, Timothey Sullivan; Technical Director, Geof Dolan; Music Director, Charlie Reuter; Choreographer, Peggy Hickey; Director, Larry Raben
Starring Amanda Lea LaVergne, Joey Sorge; With James Beaman, Steve Brady, Elyse Collier, Aaron Fried, Valton Jackson, Breighanna Minnema, Willie Dee, Matthew J. Kilgore, Noelle Marion, Andrew Metzgar, Kristina Miller, Madison Mitchell, Ashlea Potts, Heather Stinson, Matthew J. Vargo, Kent Zimmerman; With Sally Struthers and Special Guest Star Valerie Harper