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Nice Work If You Can Get It

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 24, 2012

Nice Work If You Can Get It A New Musical Comedy. Music & lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin. Book by Joe DiPietro. Inspired by material by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall. Scenic design by Dereky McLane. Costume design by Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Hair & wig design by Paul Huntley. Make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Projection design by Alexander V. Nichols. Orchestrator Bill Elliott. Matthew Broderick, Kelli O'Hara, Michael McGrath, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Chris Sullivan, Robyn Hurder, Stanley Wayne Mathis, Terry Beaver, with Judy Kaye, and Estelle Parsons, Cameron Adams, Clyde Alves, Kaitlyn Davidson, Jason DePinto, Kimberly Fauré, Robert Hartwell, Stephanie Martignetti, Barrett Martin, Michael X. Martin, Adam Perry, Jeffrey Schecter, Jennifer Smith, Joey Sorge, Samantha Sturm, Kristen Beth Williams, Candice Marie Woods.
Theatre: Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Schedule: Tuesday at 7 pm, Wednesday at 2 pm & 8 pm, Thursday at 7 pm, Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 2 pm & 8 pm, Sunday at 3 pm.
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, with one intermission.
Audience: Appropriate 4+ Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Ticket prices: $46.50 - $250.00
Tickets: Telecharge

Matthew Broderick and Kelli O'Hara
Photo by Joan Marcus

Everything you need to know about Nice Work If You Can Get It, the musical that just opened at the Imperial, may be gleaned from, of all things, its show curtain. Rather than hinting at the setting (Prohibition-era New York), presaging an evening of melodious froth to which the enterprise theoretically aspires, or merely presenting an attractive showpiece to engage your attention before the action begins, it's a chilly, industrial snapshot, rendered entirely in blue and white, of a section of sheet music from the George and Ira Gershwin song that gives the show its name.

"All that matters is the music," it essentially screams at you, dispassionately and cynically guiding you to believe that what you're about to see is more concerned with the preservation of a cherished (and financially valuable) brand than it is entertainment. When the show begins, and librettist Joe DiPietro and director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall thrust you into an outing that's as bereft of ideas as it is passion, heart, and heat, at least you can reflect on those pre-show moments and realize you weren't lied to.

Sadly, aside from the spectacular tunes and two estimable (and tragically underutilized) comic performances, that's the only consolation you'll find. This is depressing not just because of the waste of the talent involved, but also because it represents a new low for a concept that had, in the past, produced cheerful results. This is the third Gershwin catalog book musical to hit Broadway in as many decades, and there was every reason to believe that it would follow in the fleet footsteps of My One and Only (1983) and Crazy for You (1992).

It does not. What those shows had going for them were visionary artists at the wheel, who knew better and cared more than to let even relatively unambitious projects pass without comment. So when Tommy Tune and Thommie Walsh took the helm of the earlier one (with a cleverly retro Peter Stone–Timothy S. Mayer libretto), and Mike Ockrent (direction and conception), Ken Ludwig (who wrote the raucous slapstick book and co-conceived the show), and Susan Stroman (choreography—her first big Broadway job) that of the latter, their work became opportunities for expression and originality that elevated the canned tunes to something freer, fresher, and more dramatic.

Similar magic has not happened here. DiPietro's adaptation of Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse's script for the 1926 Gershwin tuner Oh, Kay! is about as loose-handed as Ludwig's spin on Girl Crazy, and not in itself a terrible effort. Aging, super-rich, and thrice-married playboy Jimmy Winter (Matthew Broderick) is angling to take a new wife in acclaimed modern dance interpreter Eileen Evergreen (Jennifer Laura Thompson), when he's distracted by the beautiful cross-dressing bootlegger Billie Bendix (Kelli O'Hara). Admitting, after an unfortunate bout of drunkenness, that his palatial Long Island mansion is standing unused, Billie moves her storage operations there, just in time to coincide with Jimmy and Eileen's honeymoon. Complications predictably ensue, partners get switched, parents get miffed (Estelle Parsons plays Jimmy's free-thinking mom, Terry Beaver Eileen's uptight senator father), and somehow it all eventually sorts itself out.

For us, however, it's a different matter. The execution of, well, pretty much everything, is amazingly effortful, a weight that proves deadly for something that wants to be feather-light. You can all but hear the wheels turning as those involved try to make a seedy speakeasy scene a scintillating opening, or cram chorus girls and the obligatory comic cop (Stanley Wayne Mathis, doing his best) into seemingly every room in Jimmy's summer house, at any time of day or night. And moments that are supposed to be amusing (Eileen bathing while crooning "Delishious" to a bevy of bubble people, the utterly pointless and plotless "They All Laughed" finale) reek more of desperation, something that's never funny.

Speaking of which, the less said about Broderick's adenoidal, constipated performance, the better. His shtick won him a Tony for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1995 and in The Producers was a fitting complement to Nathan Lane's oversize Broadway bravado. But Broderick's self-knowing smugness is at odds with the slickness Jimmy demands, and his just-passable singing and dancing don't aid a show that's completely dependent on nimble renditions of its numbers. And O'Hara, though a gifted soprano, stumbles around the comedy and strains against the naturalism she's trying to apply to Billie; she also looks, shall we say, less than convincing in the mannish clothes the plot requires. The two share a kind of awkward chemistry, but it's more of the miscast than the effervescent variety and is rarely pleasant to watch.

Thompson, Parsons, Robyn Hurder (as the lead chorus girl), and Chris Sullivan (as one of Billie's hooch-hustling henchmen), do a bit better. But Marshall hamstrings them all, with arid staging, flaccid pacing, and witless choreography that makes even the peppiest numbers feel leaden. Dances, particularly between Broderick and O'Hara, go on forever but don't build (even in the limited ways Marshall managed with last season's revival of Anything Goes), and thus generate little more than general admiration. If you crave the excitement and inventiveness found in, Stroman's "I Got Rhythm" rip-up or Tune's "My One and Only" tap duet, forget about Marshall sating your appetite.

Judy Kaye and Michael McGrath
Photo by Joan Marcus

Does anything work? Yes, actually. Derek McLane's Technicolor sets are unusually scrumptious, employing full-stage drops and elegant roll-on augmentations that signal both 1920s ingenuity and the necessary poshness of the various locales. Martin Pakledinaz's costumes and Peter Kaczorowski's lights capture some sense of playful character. And, of course, the songs as written are a delight: Indifferently sung as they are, the title number, "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "'S Wonderful," "Fascinating Rhythm," and plenty of others don't grow tiresome, especially as orchestrated by Bill Elliot and musical directed by Tom Murray.

But as far as the personality factor, there are only two names of note: Judy Kaye and Michael McGrath. She plays the senator's anti-alcohol sister, he Billie's heavy who's masquerading as Jimmy's butler so he can keep an eye on the goods, and together they're comic gold. The only people onstage who ideally fit their roles and know their way around the script's parched quips, they inject more laughs into Act II than the pre-intermission snoozefest gives you any right to expect. And when they join forces, in a contrapuntal duet of "Sweet and Lowdown" and "By Strauss" and later on "Looking for a Boy" (the latter of which sends Kaye swinging from a chandelier, the night's sole show-stopping moment), you get a whiff of the anything-goes frivolity '20s audiences must have enjoyed on a regular basis.

Any other theatrical insight into the Gershwins' milieu is incidental at best and accidental at worst. There's no reason it necessarily had to be that way; Nice Work If You Can Get It shows just enough potential in its general structure and geniality to make you realize the great deal you can't take away from it—and this is not a case where, to continue the title song's lyric, "you can get it if you try." Instead, you'll just find yourself wishing, over and over again, that almost everyone had tried as hard as they appear to be working.

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