“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.

An Open Letter to Roundabout

To Whom It May Concern,

I have been a loyal subscriber with the Roundabout Theater Company for two seasons. When I first got the solicitation call, the ticket seller and I discussed the recent production of 110 in the Shade, a delightful musical revival with Audra McDonald that was an unmitigated pleasure. I decided to take the plunge and see how it worked out. I didn’t regret that decision, as I was mostly pleased with the 2007-08 season as well as my seating arrangements. There was no hesitancy when it came to renewing for the following season, plus there was the offer of upgraded seating.

There have been many shows I have appreciated at Roundabout, with especially fond memories of Sunday in the Park With George, Pygmalion, The Marriage of Bette and Boo and Old Acquaintance. Others I may have appreciated less, but still was grateful for the opportunity to see the works live onstage.

Regardless of what was being presented, there has never been an issue with the front of house staff, or any of the ushers. I have had no problem with needing to exchange a ticket when something such as inclement weather or illness got in the way. For those amenities and customer services, I am exceptionally grateful.

Looking back on your Broadway season, you hit a decent mark with your underrated revival of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons in the fall. Pal Joey and Hedda Gabler were much talked about in theatre circles, and you brought Godot back to Broadway in lieu of Fosse. (A decision that pleased me, as I feel we’ve hit the ceiling on Fosse revivals-tributes-revues for the time being). However, my focus today brings us to the current production of The Philanthropist.

It’s not that The Philanthropist is a bad production, it’s that the revival of Christopher Hampton’s wry comedy about an offensively inoffensive philologist is hands down the worst production I personally have ever seen executed on a Broadway stage. Perhaps executed is too kind a word to describe what happened onstage at the American Airlines Theatre. But I digress…

I have read that this production, which transferred from the Donmar in London, was a success in England due to a nuanced performance from star Simon Russell Beale. Unlike the transfer of The Norman Conquests, with its entire cast intact, this production falters immeasurably from the miscasting of Matthew Broderick in the role of Philip.

Now I realize that Broderick is an internationally recognized film star from his appearances in such films as Ferris Bueller and Election, and I assume that there must have been some worth to his talent garnering two Tony Awards along the way. A renowned performer is likely to boost interest and ticket sales for the more obscure offerings at your humble little home. But I would hope that the next time you consider doing an uninteresting play with little to no relevancy to anyone or anything, you at least find a leading man who will at least try to act. Or at least can manage enough charm and presence to fake his way through a performance.

There was a brief moment when I thought that perhaps the play wasn’t going to be as bad as critics and word of mouth suggested. Then Broderick uttered his first line and it was instantly clear that all hope was lost. Broderick is giving a performance that could easily be described as that of a high school freshman making his stage debut. But that in itself would be an insult to high school freshmen everywhere.

From beginning to end, the star makes no discernible effort. He speaks in an accent that is a parody of a parody of a British accent; there is no investment of his body into his performance. If Broderick is making any effort to act, it’s with his head alone and even then he looks bored, sounds lazy and doesn’t remotely care that there is a paying audience in attendance.

For someone who studied at the HB Studios, Mr. Broderick should be ashamed to be giving a performance in such complete contrast to everything the great Uta Hagen espoused. Can one’s Equity card be revoked for unabashed ambivalence? If not, there should be a special dispensation made here. It appears that the actor has hit a wall in terms of his ability and range.

Not all is lost. Thank you for offering Broadway newcomer Tate Ellington the chance to show us what appears to be a considerable potential as a stage actor. Perhaps my issue here is not so much with you, but more so with playwright Hampton that Ellington’s character shoots himself in the head less than ten minutes into the play. The most fascinating character in the play not only dies instantly, but his storyline has very little to do with the plot at all. If there had been any mercy in the world, his character would have shot Mr. Broderick’s Philip instead, sparing the theatregoers at my Sunday matinee a most excruciating two hours.

Thank you also for Steven Weber and Jonathan Cake, two game pros who both tried in vain to save the play. I have never seen actors working so hard, nor have I ever felt so embarrassed for professionals so lost at sea from a star’s complete lack of interest. My heart goes out to Samantha Soule, an actress with no dialogue who makes the most of her thankless cameo. For the majority of the second act, I couldn’t help but think “Where is Mark Rylance when you need him?”

Unfortunately, the presence of the other actors did absolutely nothing to salvage the afternoon. I have never seen an audience so completely disengaged by a play, a production or a performance in all my years of professional theatregoing. This play also marked the first time I seriously considered walking out at intermission. Though I decided I wouldn’t break my streak with this production, a part of me wishes I had.

Glancing around the house, I noticed people of all ages starting to doze off. While a production can be bad, it should never be boring. That is where this show falls from grace: it unforgivably manages to be both. There is the old adage of “phoning it in,” and Mr. Broderick has found a way of turning that into an art.

As I walked into the lobby, I turned in time to see a subscriber grab her husband by the arm and say loudly with contempt “That was pathetic.” I must say I agree; I have never felt so resentful at the curtain call of any play quite like this one.

So my friends at Roundabout, I regret to inform you that I will not be renewing my subscription for the next season. I will take each show on a case by case basis. There is still some remote hope for the coming season, especially as you are offering the first-ever revival of one of my favorites, Bye Bye Birdie.

I look forward to the future.

Theatre Aficionado (at Large)