“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.

Quote of the Day: ‘At Large’ Elsewhere…

From Peter Filichia’s Diary on 10.10.08:

Kevin Daly did Encores! a favor by casting Darling of the Day for them. Now all that Encores! has to do is do the show. Daly wisely chose David Hyde Pierce as Priam Farll, Victoria Clark as Alice Challice, Judy Kaye as Lady Vale, and Gavin Lee as Alfie. I’m interested; aren’t you? Hope the powers-that-be at City Center are listening.

"On the Twentieth Century"

The first time I listened to the original cast recording of On the Twentieth Century was in April 2001. I can recall this because it was the first time I ever went to New Paltz, NY, where I ended up going to college. I had been borrowing a lot of cast albums over the previous weeks from the local library, hearing scores like Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, The Secret Garden, She Loves Me and many others for the first time. The reason I had picked it up was because the musical originally starred the late, great Madeline Kahn in a high coloratura soprano role. That was enough to make me go “Hmm!”

On the Twentieth Century was based on Twentieth Century, a 1930s play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacDonald (itself a reworking of Charles Bruce Millholland’s unproduced Napoleon of Broadway about his experienced working under flamboyant impresario David Belasco) and probably most famous as the Howard Hawks’ 1934 screwball comedy film classic starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. The story centers around a flamboyant impresario (go figure) named Oscar Jaffee, who is down on his luck as a producer and director. Facing flop after flop, he is determined to win back his own Galatea, an Oscar winning Hollywood star Lily Garland, who was once his former lover. The play (and musical) is mostly set aboard the 20th Century Ltd, a luxury liner train that used to run between Chicago and NYC in 16 hours.

Anyway, the ride got off to a great start as I listened to what is one of the most unique and well orchestrated overtures in the entire musical theatre canon. When I say this is a phenomenal overture, I mean it I repeated it immediately. The overture just screams of farce and operetta. It was love at first listen. The score (by Cy Coleman and Comden & Green) has become one of my all-time favorites.

Joining Madeline Kahn were John Cullum, Imogene Coca and Kevin Kline. The show opened at the St. James Theatre in NY in 1978. The show was a big critical success, earning kudos for its screwball antics, pastiche operetta-spoof score, the performances. Robin Wagner received incredible acclaim for his Art Deco flavored set design. Direction was provided by Harold Prince in a rare musical comedy project (musical theatre of the 1970s was all but defined by his darker conceptual collaborations with Stephen Sondheim).

The show also had the distinct privilege of bringing Judy Kaye to the forefront of musical theatre actresses. She was hired by Prince as an understudy for Kahn. However, Kahn was having vocal problems (evident at certain points on the original cast album) and left the production two months after the opening night, with Kaye taking over the lead (in the “overnight star sensation” mold), though there have been long established rumors of clashes with Prince. Kaye received the Theatre World award and a nomination from the Drama Desk awards for her performance. However, the awkward came from the Tony committee – they nominated Kahn, as per their rules that only the originator of a role can receive the nomination (the only exception to this rule was Larry Kert, who replaced Dean Jones early in Company).

The musical won five Tony awards. Best Actor for Cullum, Best Featured Actor for Kevin Kline, Book, Score and Set Design. Best Musical went to Ain’t Misbehavin’. The show ran for a little over a year, closing after 449 performances. Kaye went on national tour with Rock Hudson and the show opened in London in 1980 starring Keith Michell and Julia McKenzie (which went unrecorded) running for 165 performances. Kaye and Coca went on a bus and truck tour in the mid 80s with Frank Gorshin. However, the musical has only been seen in NY once since its original production, as a concert for the Actor’s Fund in 2005 with Douglas Sills and Marin Mazzie. It seems highly unlikely, given the revival of Twentieth Century by Roundabout that there are any plans for a full-scale revival of the musical, but it’s definitely a musical that deserves to be seen and heard.

Sarah, Noah and I had the great privilege earlier that very year of seeing Kaye perform the song “Never” at the Theatre World awards. The woman is, in short, a wonder. Anyone who saw her dynamo performance in the short-lived Souvenir can attest to that.

Here is the Tony Awards performance of the title song featuring the entire company:

"A White House Cantata"

Colossal failure. That’s the summation I generally give 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Leonard Bernstein-Alan Jay Lerner flop that played a tumultuously chaotic out of town tryout and limped into New York for a 7 performance run. Where did it go wrong? Probably at the very start. Lerner was frustrated over the Watergate scandal of 1972 and collaborated with Bernstein on a concept musical that would examine the first hundred years of the White House, with an emphasis on race relations through that time. Highly ambitious stuff.

Tonight I was at the condensed revision of the piece (which eliminated practically the entire book and focused on the historical musical scenes) called A White House Cantata. The event was presented by the Collegiate Chorale under the artistic direction of Tony award winning actor Roger Rees and marked the NY premiere of this revision, and the first time the score had been heard in NY since it closed May 8, 1976.

The piece calls out for a more theatrical staging rather than the staid classical production it received tonight. The Collegiate Chorale stood and sat upstage in a semi circle, with four chairs and four mike stands (everyone had a binder) downstage. Chills were to be had several times throughout. “Take Care of This House” and “To Make Us Proud” (which reminded me so much of “Make Our Garden Grow”) are stunning pieces. The crescendo of the latter was beyond gorgeous. (“To Make Us Proud” should never have been cut as the finale. It is a stunning summation of liberal patriotism – and that last note is held forever and a day). Hearing those original orchestrations (by Bernstein, Hershy Kay and Sid Ramin) was worth the price of admission alone. Dwayne Croft was amusing as the President, and in stellar voice, if no great shakes as an actor. Emily Pulley‘s “Duet for One” was well executed – she found the comedy where June Anderson failed in the initial presentation/recording ten years ago. And needless to say, the number stopped the show. However – she did not take the high D above C at the end which separates the good First Ladies from the superlative First Ladies (like Patricia Routledge and Judy Kaye, who made the first official recording of the showcase for John McGlinn). Robert Mack and Anita Johnson were fine as Lud and Seena; especially with the infectious “I Love My Wife.” Rees also made an amusing cameo as Admiral Cockburn during the “Sonatina.”

As the show is performed now, with practically nothing left of the book it runs an intermission-less 90 minutes. Basically it’s everything you hear on the disappointingly lifeless album they recorded after the London premiere ten years ago (with Thomas Hampson and June Anderson). But I feel though that by removing the entire book, you’re left with just songs and little context. They tried to make up for that with a historical Powerpoint presentation that lasted the entire performance. They also wisely used supertitles for lyrical clarity. Which brings me to my aforementioned quibble. The piece is eminently theatrical and not classical – it would have fared better with musical theatre actors in the leads. Say for instance, Marc Kudisch and Victoria Clark as the President and First Lady. (Let’s face it, Victoria Clark should just do the Patricia Routledge songbook). There was a lack of cohesion that was made even more obvious with the lack of dialogue or even a narration. Hmm.. That sounds like an idea for the cantata, link the fragmented musical sequences with narrative. That would make more sense than just jumping from one musical piece to another. It could also help the audience care more for Lud and Seena, since they are the fictional characters of the piece, who really come out of nowhere and go nowhere, except to serve as catalysts for racial discussion within the musical numbers. We should have an opportunity to care for them. But let’s face it, it is a problematic show, otherwise it wouldn’t be obsessed by elitists and curious flop fiends.

I am, as many of you are well aware, fascinated to no end by the piece, especially since it’s one of such breadth and scope. And there seems to be a masterwork yearning to break out of the confines of the show in each of its revisions. I found that there was more fun to the piece when it was a Broadway musical and not an oratorio (the piece demands the energy and acting, especially in regards to the satiric numbers). They’ve reinstated the much more reserved original Prelude as opposed to the lively overture that opened the show on Broadway (which is decidedly Bernsteinian) and the framework of “Rehearse” which is infectious and little tidbits, like “The Honor of Your Presence is Requested” which for whatever reason I just love the melodic line. The impeachment scene between President Johnson and Seena is one of the most compelling dialogues that the show had to offer. It was nowhere to be seen. In fact, the servants rarely interact with the President and First Lady in the revision. The fragmentation sort of defeats the author’s original intent, doesn’t it?

The following quote from John Adams’ correspondence with his wife Abigail, written on his second day of occupancy was missing – and it makes for a beauty of a line:

“I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this House, and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.”

After the show, there was a highly engaging talkback hosted by Seth Rudetsky with Richard Muenz, Beth Fowler, co-director George Faison and Fowler’s husband John Witham (they met during this production and were married a year later). Also present was Warren Hoge, who covered the show during its preview period in 1976 – and told an amusing anecdote about how he sang “Take Care of This House” to Ronald Reagan at a White House dinner. One of the audience questions was actually a comment from a man who was at the closing and recalled how Routledge received such an ovation for “Duet for One” that she performed an encore. Fowler backed him up saying it was the only time she had ever seen anything like that “They wouldn’t let the show go on.” She also does a rather amusing Pat Routledge impersonation. They mused on what worked and didn’t work. The chaos of rehearsals and being out of town. The confusion of having rehearsed half a scene, only to perform the new first half and the old second half at the evening perform. Yikes. Many mixed reactions on the original work from all onstage. “A wonderful-terrible experience.” They were all thrilled to hear the score again – and Faison summed it up best when he said that Lerner and Bernstein were trying to say too much.

Erik Haagensen, who was cited in the concert notes as having written an article about the musical for Show Music magazine in 1992, has worked on an estate-approved revision of the work that was done in the early 90s. What a shame we can’t get his work out in the open, because I feel that there is a masterwork among this ruin that has yet to surface.

One final quibble. For a show that deals with race it was jarring that the chorale was almost all white, with nary an African American woman in sight, save for Ms. Johnson.

While it was a treat to hear the piece live in NY, A White House Cantata is not and should not be the final word on this score.

Happy Birthday, Patricia Routledge!

This site’s favorite musical theatre diva turns 79 today. With word from Variety that Trevor Nunn may be directing a revival of A Little Night Music for the Menier Chocolate Factory, wouldn’t she make a marvelous addition to the cast as Madame Armfeldt? I’d certainly cross the pond for that.

I listened to four different renditions of my much-loved “Duet for One” this afternoon (it even warranted a playlist on itunes) delivered by three noted sopranos. Patricia Routledge (at the world premiere performance in Philadelphia and several months later at the final performance in NY; with different versions of the song, the former of which has been reinstated as the official), June Anderson who recorded the First Lady for the CD premiere of Bernstein’s score A White House Cantata, and finally Judy Kaye who recorded the piece for the John McGlinn Broadway Showstoppers compilation CD. Anderson’s is pretty tepid; she has plenty of voice, but little humor and practically no personality. She barely even tried to delineate between the two first ladies. She’s also the only one out of the three who doesn’t cap off the end of the song on a high D above C (kudos to Pat and Jude for such prowess). For a famed coloratura soprano who has sung the roles of Cunegonde, The Queen of the Night and Lucia, among others, you’d think she’d be able to pop out a little old D. Hey June, I bet Renee would do it better. So there.

If I knew how to upload songs on here, I would.

Also, a special birthday shout out to Broadway and film legend (and first-time Oscar nominee) Hal Holbrook who is 83 today. I wish him luck at the Oscars. Though I love Bardem’s performance in No Country for Old Men and is a lock for the award, there is a small sentimental part of me rooting for Holbrook.