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Off Broadway Reviews

Girl Crazy

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Chris Diamantopoulos and Becki Newton.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

With a score this good, who needs a book? One can only assume this was the rationale behind the City Center Encores! production of Girl Crazy, which is playing through Sunday. On unquestionably three of this 1930 pepper-upper musical's songs George and Ira Gershwin outdid even their own incomparable compositions, and as long as director Jerry Zaks, the cast, and guest music director Rob Fisher and the Encores! Orchestra are on top of them, this wispy, silly show can do no wrong.

What is there to say about "Embraceable You," "I Got Rhythm," and "But Not For Me" that countless cover artists and, much more importantly, human hearts and souls haven't rhapsodized about endlessly for 79 years? These are classics for the best of reasons, the first and third because they respectively tap into the swaying lusciousness of romance and the utter deflation of sudden heartbreak, and the second because its relentlessly pounding optimism calls your spirit to action as much now as it did during the Great Depression.

This is less music than a part of the American psyche, and to hear the songs as they were originally intended, with Robert Russell Bennett's Broadway-busting orchestrations, is to understand the wavering essence of musical comedy immediately post-Show Boat. Maybe "Bidin' My Time," "Could You Use Me," and "Sam and Delilah" are more second-tier, but they're remarkable in their own rights, circumscribing Southwestern romance, fleet-footed courtship, and semi-steamy sex play no less expertly than the three Hits to End All Hits. The rest of the numbers, even if still lower on the scale, aren't quite slouches, either. Who could ask for anything more?

Because Encores! is, at its core, all about the music, one must be thankful for the opportunity to be exposed to this score in as close as we're likely to get to its natural setting. But this time around, it isn't just the primary thing - it's the only thing. David Ives's "concert adaptations" are familiar to any veteran Encores! audience member. Ives never gives you the full book - or, usually, anything close - but through his reductions he usually maintains some semblance of sense and structure, guiding you from song to song in a way that gives you a vague feel for the story that might once have existed.

Not so here. Aside from a few lines identifying Danny Churchill (Chris Diamantopoulos) as being sent from New York to Custerville, Arizona, to cure him of his being "girl crazy," we know nothing about the male lead. Molly Gray (Becki Newton) is the local mailwoman with whom he falls in love at first sight and not much more. A scene or two later, he's running his own dude ranch-cum-nightclub and proposing to Molly. Then an old friend of his, Tom Mason (Gregory Wooddell), arrives, announces he's in love with Molly too, and transports her to Mexico - with Danny and the rest of Custerville to follow.

Ana Gasteyer and the company.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Huh? Why? And who is everybody - such as Danny's driver, Gieber Goldfarb (Wayne Knight), who's voted sheriff on a minute's notice; or the bickering show-biz couple Slick and Frisco Kate Follicle (Marc Kudisch and Ana Gasteyer), who show up and just start working? Who are these roughniks chasing Gieber for money, and what does hypnosis have to do with any of it? What causes Danny and Molly to get together? To split up? And then to get together again?

You may as well forget getting answers to these questions - Ives isn't interested in much between getting from song to song, and even there the roads are anything but smooth. In fairness, he was faced with a difficult task to begin with. Guy Bolton and Jack McGowan's book is a gags-and-gals fest, offering fun and not much else - a stereotypical libretto of the period, unaware that shows like Oklahoma! and Guys and Dolls were even theoretically possible.

Mike Ockrent and Ken Ludwig sent up every trope in their brilliant 1992 tribute book show, Crazy for You - this stuff is hard to swallow straight today under the best conditions. But from the tattered remains Ives has allowed Zaks to thrust onstage, it's impossible to tell exactly what the creators intended Girl Crazy to be beyond a superlative listen. For even moderately avid theatrical historians, that's probably worse than if Zaks and Fisher had insisted on an evening of just the songs.

For this reason, assessing much of what's onstage is tough. Zaks's staging seems to be watery, his comic pacing just a beat behind the ideal. Warren Carlyle's choreography is drowning in low-key derivativeness, even more than in Carlyle's Broadway revival of Finian's Rainbow. And it's obvious that Diamantopoulos and Becki Newton are talented and ingratiating young singers, if a bit lost in the charisma department; that Knight is precisely in his post-Newman element, especially when he gets to channel the likes of Jimmy Durante and Al Jolson; that Kudisch's bravura bluster never really wears thin; and that Gasteyer, despite a brassy sunniness and marvelous control over the tone and borderline-endless duration her notes require in "I Got Rhythm," lacks the vocal dynamism and go-for-broke comedy chops of Kate's originator, Ethel Merman.

What can't be stated with any certainty, however, is whether the moments these matches inspire are intentional, or the natural, unpredictable outgrowth of a company faced with a "concert adaptation" that provides no solid cues. Throughout, there's the overwhelming feeling about this concert that you're experiencing only half a show - if that. But when one of those songs starts, you're made completely - if temporarily - whole again, the timeless music and lyrics the only glue you need. They're not quite enough to patch the rifts Ives has created - but they come closer than any lesser set of standards could ever hope to.

City Center Encores!
Girl Crazy
Through November 22
City Center Mainstage, New York City Center, 130 West 56th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: City Center Encores!

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