"Crazy For You" – The Original Broadway Cast

Back in November, Encores! presented a rare revival of the 1930 Gershwin musical Girl Crazy. In effect, the experience was more like a history lesson to musical aficionados and scholars as the book and construction don’t quite hold up to the more sophisticated standards that have come our way. When there was an attempt to revive the show in the late 80s/early 90s, it became clear to the powers that be that the original show couldn’t work in an politically era of Broadway. That’s when Crazy for You was born.

The new musical was loosely based on the basic plot outline of the original: rich NYC playboy goes west, falls in love with local girl. Hijinks ensue. However, Ken Ludwig wrote a brand new story with new characters and situations, using five songs from the Girl Crazy score and interpolating thirteen other Gershwin songs. The new show was something of a backstage musical farce, with the young playboy putting on a Ziegfeld-esque show in the middle-of-nowhere Deadrock, Nevada just to impress that town’s only girl. Direction was provided by Mike Ockrent, the British director who had similarly resuscitated Me and My Girl in the mid 80s and the choreography was supplied by newcomer Susan Stroman. The show would mark Stroman’s first significant Broadway achievement and launched her career as one of the most important choreographers of the decade.

Starring as the two lovers were Harry Groener and Jodi Benson. The original Broadway cast also included the late, great Bruce Adler, Beth Leavel, Michelle Pawk, John Hillner, Jane Connell, Jessica Molaskey, Casey Nicholaw, and Stephen Temperley (who would go on to write Souvenir). After 10 previews, the show opened at the Shubert Theatre to rave reviews, with a particularly ecstatic Frank Rich proclaiming that Broadway had reached out and snatched the musical back from the British. The musical comedy won three Tonys: Best Musical, Best Costume Design (William Ivey Long) and Best Choreography. The show ran 1,622 performances on Broadway; a London company starring Ruthie Henshall opened a year later and ran for almost three years. A PaperMill Playhouse production recreated the Broadway staging, even featuring original cast members and was aired on PBS Great Performances.

I first saw Crazy for You at my high school when I was 14 years old. It was the school’s spring musical, and I was completely blown away. The script was funny, the music and lyrics were from the Gershwins and utterly sublime (my first real introduction to their work). It was enough to get me involved with the high school’s drama club, where I spent two glorious years. I also wore out a videotape of the PaperMill telecast. Our senior year, the high school took a trip (a field trip down memory lane, really) to see the show at the Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford. Once again, they were recreating much of the original staging (and there were cast members from the PaperMill staging, too). The show starred Shonn Wiley and Meredith Patterson, who would both go onto starring in various Broadway roles and also get married along the way.

For what it’s worth, Stroman may have made a lot of waves with her direction and choreography of The Producers, but I don’t think she’s ever topped her breakthrough work in Crazy For You.

First up: Act One Finale. Ethel Merman became a star in Girl Crazy because of her delivery of “I Got Rhythm” late in that show’s first act. For Crazy for You, Stroman turns the number into a raucous, jubilant celebration lasting eight minutes. It’s a tap-heavy show (and this number especially), but it also exemplifies what would become her trademark: the use of props as part of the dance. Here is a rare video (found thanks to Robert Bullen of Confessions of a Chicago Theatre Addict) of the original Broadway cast performing “I Got Rhythm” onstage at the Shubert:

When the plot of Crazy For You is all wrapped up, and the inevitable happy ending is upon us, Stroman goes all out for a very Astaire-Rogers moment with the lovers rising while showgirls in folly girl headdresses appear. But wait – Stroman isn’t finished. There’s still the choreographed curtain call, with another boisterous reprise of “I Got Rhythm” (with all those tappers doing all those wings) leading to a company bow. Again, taped at the Shubert Theatre on 44th Street, here is the original cast. And yes, that’s Beth Leavel singing first.

"Girl Crazy" at Encores!

I’m always grateful for Encores! and have made an effort to see everything they do from here on out regardless of whether or not I’m really interested in seeing it. Truth be told, while I have always enjoyed the 1992 revisal Crazy for You, I have never been that enamored with its predecessor Girl Crazy. The show opened on Broadway in 1930, and made stars out of both Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers (remember them?). The admittedly politically incorrect script is ripe with exceptionally weak humor, things that were most likely barely passable back when it opened. However, the book emulated many other popular musicals of the era – the script was an excuse to get from one number to the next. When someone got the idea to revive the show, they took a look at the material and realized it wouldn’t fly. That’s when Ken Ludwig, Mike Ockrent and Susan Stroman came on board and the end result was the 1992 “new” Gershwin show.

So if you’re going to present a weak musical that calls for star power to carry it, it’s in your best interest to find tried and true musical comedy performers. Across the board, with one notable exception, the cast fell far short in successfully delivering the material. As a result, this production was only particularly interesting as a textbook example of early musical comedy. While the score is known for its standards (“Embraceable You,” “But Not For Me,” and the energetic “I Got Rhythm”), it’s not the Gershwin’s best.

Real-life couple and TV stars Chris Diamantopoulous and Becki Newton were the top lining stars (of whom I admittedly had never heard) and weren’t quite up to the challenge. Granted Encores allows for five days of rehearsal, and the actors are required to carry scripts, but the lack of chemistry between the two was blatant. He fared better than she; he had a better way with a melody but she was lost at sea in what felt like a community theatre calibre performance. Marc Kudisch made little impression, but perhaps its because his song “Treat Me Rough” is rather awkward. Ana Gasteyer seemed uncomfortable as Frisco Kate, the Merman part, she can sing the hell out of anything but was so mechanical. She mimicked the famed 16 bar note that made Merman a star, but it felt more like a robotic chore than musical expression.

The lone bright spot: Wayne Knight. The former Seinfeld star was the only person onstage who really understood his material and the only one who looked like he was having any real fun. His engaging manner was the only performance that really reached out across the footlights into the audience. His reprise of “But Not For Me” complete with impressions of Rudy Vallee, Jimmy Durante and others brought down the house. Director-choreographer Warren Carlyle, whose Encores! production of Finian’s Rainbow has settled in at the St. James Theatre on Broadway, fails to create a cohesive ensemble, and his choreography was surprisingly dull.

However, as is the case with many obscure Encores! entries, the evening belongs to the music. The orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett were given superlative treatment by musical director Rob Fisher. Musically, the real highpoints were the overture (heard on the My Favorite Broadway: The Leading Ladies telecast and soundtrack), entr’acte (which involved a trumpet solo by Fisher) and the swinging exit music. That original orchestra pit had Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa among its players. And on opening night, George Gershwin himself conducted.

Roxie and I couldn’t help but follow the loose connections between Girl Crazy and its successor Crazy for You. Character names, songs and a western motif found their way into the later show though it was turned into a tap-happy backstager with some of Susan Stroman’s finest musical staging. Added to the mix at the City Center was the delightful Mylinda Hull who was in the PaperMill Playhouse production of Crazy for You, a recreation of the completely Broadway staging and telecast on PBS, who was on board here as a daffy receptionist. The musical comedy has a come a long way, as evidenced by these related libretti. The earlier show is flimsy and thin, while the later show has followed the conventions that have been established through the Golden Age and beyond, with sophistication and propulsion of plot, character and comedy.

Now my question: when will we see a first class revival of Crazy for You?

The City Center Encores! 2009-2010 Season

Girl Crazy
Music: George Gershwin
Lyrics: Ira Gershwin
Book: Guy Bolton
November 19-22, 2009

Music & Lyrics: Harold Rome
Book: Joshua Logan & S. N. Behrman
February 4-7, 2010

Anyone Can Whistle
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim (who incidentally turns 80 next year…)
Book: Arthur Laurents
April 8-11, 2010

Whatever happened to the renovation of the City Center that was supposed to be taking place?