“Nice Work If You Can Get It”


Nice Work If You Can Get It isn’t particularly groundbreaking and it feels like the sort of show you’ve seen time and again (fans of My One and Only and Crazy for You will probably agree), but the new musical (a loose overhaul of the 1926 musical Oh, Kay! with a new plot and characters) for all its old-fashioned sensibilities, is much to my surprise, delightful. One of those fizzy champagne (or in this case, gin), check-your-brain-at-the-door comedies with gorgeous costumes, scenery and (most especially) songs.

The book (by Joe DiPietro) is chock full of 20s silliness. The plot is negligible; something about bootleggers hiding their stash at a ritzy 47 room Long Island mansion. Farcical complications ensue with lots of colorful characters along the way. Like those period shows, the scenes are a breezy set-up for one knock-out song after another. In this instance, they are the songs of George and Ira Gershwin (with one DeSylva lyric tossed in for good measure) and the evening becomes a daffy trip through the American songbook, with 20 or so of their tunes represented.

Matthew Broderick is playing the milquetoast millionaire playboy at the center of the story. The star has a certain stiffness and drollness that at first struck me as odd, but I soon warmed to the performance. Mr. Broderick has a meager singing voice which works well with the period, while his dancing leaves something to be desired. Surprisingly, I rather enjoyed him (and faithful readers will recall the last time I saw him on stage). Kelli O’Hara plays the gorgeous tomboy Billie, who gets to sing “Someone to Watch Over Me” (with a subversive twist) and “But Not for Me.” While the role has Sutton Foster written all over it, Ms. O’Hara is a gem. I particularly enjoyed her disastrous attempt at seduction “Treat Me Rough” and her masquerade as a Cockney maid (Which reminds me: Ms. O’Hara’s next Broadway outing should be My Fair Lady, not the Lincoln Center production of The King and I). I also enjoyed seeing her and Broderick recall 30s musicals with an extended dance all over the set in “S’Wonderful.”

Estelle Parsons makes an eleventh-hour appearance as Broderick’s deus ex machina Mother, in a brief but winning cameo. Jennifer Laura Thompson makes vapidity irresistible, particularly in her clever bubble bath production number “Delishious.” Michael McGrath scores big laughs as the bootlegger turned butler, while the always-reliable Stanley Wayne Mathis plays a genial police officer. Robyn Hurder and Chris Sullivan are on hand as a comic couple with a combined IQ of 45. While the twosome are funny, their duet of “Blah, Blah, Blah” is unnecessary. The scene-stealer of the night is Judy Kaye. The Tony-winning soprano plays the Duchess Estonia Dulworth, a temperance-pushing battle-axe who sets speakeasies on fire in the first act, and swings drunkenly from a chandelier in the second (in the evening’s funniest scene and biggest showstopper).

Derek McLane’s sets and Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are the best kind of eye candy. Bill Elliot’s orchestrations are the best I’ve heard in quite some time  and are very much of the period and a joy to hear. If a cast album is recorded – and one should be – I hope they record the exit music. David Chase has supplied some glorious vocal arrangements. Kathleen Marshall directed and choreographed, her musical staging very much in vogue with the period (and not a tap shoe in sight). There are no big production numbers like Anything Goes or Crazy For You, but her best work is in the smaller, more intimate pieces.

While not as dazzling as the Encores! No, No, Nanette (still the best production of a 20s/30s musical comedy I’ve ever seen), there was enough crowd-pleasing charm and style in Nice Work If You Can Get It to keep me smiling from start to finish.

"Lend Me a Tenor"

Leaving the Music Box Theatre after seeing the infectious new revival of Lend Me a Tenor, I found myself unable to stop humming “La Donna è Mobile,” the famed aria from Rigoletto. No matter what I did or what song I played, it remained at the back of mind – buoyant, effervescent and melodic. The aria is heard as the house lights go down and curtain comes up on Ken Ludwig’s popular farce, instantly grabbing you and immersing you into the roller coaster ride of sidesplitting comedy about to enfold onstage. Like that aria, this new production sings out with gusto that will leave you buoyant, effervescent and smiling long after you have left the theatre.

The original production was a big hit in 1989. Starring Victor Garber, Tovah Feldshuh, and Tony-winning Phil Bosco, it ran for over a year and instantly became a staple in stock and community productions. (Its world premiere was in London in 1986). The plot in brief: the Cleveland Grand Opera is expecting a world-renowned Italian tenor for their gala. When he becomes indisposed, hijinks, misunderstandings and a hell of a lot of door slamming ensues. As a farce, the play itself is merely good, not great. Ludwig’s text as a whole feels more like a rough draft of a greater comedy that has yet to be realized. There are some missed opportunities (especially with the Bellhop, who should have more to do) and its ending seems somewhat abrupt and rushed. However, this production is so laugh out loud hilarious and features a top notch ensemble of actors, that it’s incredibly easy to both forget and forgive the shortcomings of its writing.

Anthony LaPaglia shines as Tito, the egomaniacal tenor in question whose propensity for women and booze causes most of the evening’s chaos, and is especially memorable for the fearlessness of his physicality, particularly in the scene where he gives the impressionable would-be tenor Max a lesson in voice and relaxation. It must be seen for full effect. Tony Shalhoub is in full cigar-chomping mode as the temperamental producer Sanders. Jay Klaitz is a comic revelation as the endearing Bellhop (and operaphile). Movie star Justin Bartha makes an impressive Broadway debut as the nebbishy Max, who vacillates between the sadsack producer’s assistant and confident opera diva when masquerading as Tito with considerable aplomb.

Mary Catherine Garrison winningly proves that ingenues have dirty dreams as Saunders’ daughter and Max’s girlfriend, and whose scream in the second act is one of the funniest moments I’ve seen on this or any other stage. The ever-reliable Jennifer Laura Thompson, always a welcome presence, taps into her quirky comic skills as the seductively ambitious diva Diana. Brooke Adams is far too striking to convince as a dowdy, past-her-prime matron, but the actress – mercilessly decked out like the Chrysler building – scores some big laughs.

Jan Maxwell effortlessly walks away with the entire evening as Maria, Tito’s fiery, jealous wife. Maxwell, who was last seen giving a bravura star turn in the shimmering revival of The Royal Family, hits another home run as she rages, seethes and breaks down with an exaggerated Italian accent. Whenever she is onstage she is in total command, somehow maintaining her character’s elegance in spite of her antics. She brought the first act to a crashing halt by merely hissing. After the disappointments of To Be or Not to Be and Coram Boy (which deserved to be a hit), it is especially welcoming to see Maxwell having such a banner season. Ms. Maxwell is one of the unquestionable treasures of the NY theatre scene, equally adept in both plays and musicals. If there is a God, Maxwell should be nominated for a Tony (for this and The Royal Family) – and she should win.

Then, of course, there is the director. Stanley Tucci, in his first Broadway directing gig, is as gifted a director as he is actor. His task is not an easy one; staging a successful farce is incredibly difficult as it involves laser-sharp timing from the loudest door slam to the tiniest gesture. His work here is infectious and inventive, bringing lightning pace and visual gigs, but also a certain touch of humanity that wouldn’t normally seem possible in pure farce. Tucci’s directorial touch is solid 14 karat gold. Anyone sitting center orchestra should also watch out for flying objects – all spit takes and such gags are directed out at the audience, a rather zany, inspired touch from a genius actor turned director.

John Lee Beatty’s sumptuous set captures the elegance of a posh hotel suite in the 30s, so vividly realized its as though a penthouse was cut in half and placed onstage. Martin Pakledinaz has once again outdone himself with his period costumes. His eye-popping outfits worn by his leading ladies are especially memorable (the image of Jan Maxwell casting off her fur-lined wrap is a vivid image that will aways stick with me).

Lend Me a Tenor is undoubtedly the hit comedy of the season, and the funniest thing this side of The Norman Conquests. I look forward to making another visit, especially to revel in the genius of Ms. Maxwell, but also in appreciation of Mr. Tucci’s immense achievement. Oh – and for that tour de force curtain call, which is worth the price of admission alone.