12:49 PM PDT, April 24, 2012
NEW YORK -
It most certainly is "Nice Work If You Can Get It," but the new Broadway musical starring Matthew Broderick and Kelli O'Hara is otherwise tough to define. It's not really a jukebox musical, since we don't associate the songs of George and Ira Gershwin with quarters or spinning discs.
One could call it writer Joe DiPietro's updating and rewriting of the 1926 musical "Oh, Kay," which is reasonably accurate, with an additional nod to the 1981 movie "Arthur," except that the songs in "Nice Work" are not just the songs in "Oh, Kay," but are Gershwin's greatest hits, reused and co-opted from a plethora of Gershwin properties. One common description in use, "hybrid musical," doesn't sound like a good time.
So, perhaps the best way to describe the whole shebang is to say that it is an attempt to pry such musical gems as "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and "I've Got a Crush On You" from textual surroundings that don't showcase them well anymore, write a new, hipper book with broader satirical appeal, and license the result for fun and (for the Gershwin estate) profit.
There is, most certainly, fun to be had at the show, courtesy not only of Broderick, whose deadpan delivery and guilelessness as Jimmy remain in fine fettle, but from Michael McGrath, who plays a bootlegger in this Prohibition-era farce about a suave-but-geeky playboy with multiple spouses who falls in love with a street-smart young gal (O'Hara), who first sets out to rob him only to fall for his upscale charms. McGrath, who steals the show, plays Cookie McGee, one of the various small-time crooks and other character-types floating around Jimmy's place. The longtime Chicago actor Chris Sullivan (who sings well, who knew?) plays another, and Jennifer Laura Thompson is also on hand for laughs.
DiPietro is at his best writing for the scrunch-faced McGrath, who at one point presides over a comic dinner that ends with Judy Kaye swinging, literally, from a chandelier.
"We've got bread, soup, salad and, if we can find the cat, fish," says McGrath's deadpan Cookie, going over the dinner menu, as Sullivan's Duke Mahoney bangs pot and pans in the rear. It's like a Marx Brothers scene.
Aside from a lithe ensemble of dancers, directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall into a highlight of the enterprise, the show's other strength is its oft-deft melding of gentle satire and what you might call warm Broadway traditionalism, exemplified by Derek McLane's 1920s-like set. "Look, there's Judy Kaye," you hear people say to their seatmates, closely followed by. "Look, Estelle Parsons!" (The much-loved theater veteran does a droll cameo at the end of a second act that's far stronger than the first.)
But for all DiPietro's stylish jokes and other amusements, and despite O'Hara's lovely voice and Marshall's fresh choreographic stylings, the show somehow doesn't hang together in a fully satisfying way. You struggle to fully buy the story, which gets fractured between too many locales and takes turns that leave you scratching your head. Overall, the book feels as if it was designed to accommodate the musical numbers. That might well have been the way the sausage was made, but we need to feel more as if it was the reverse. And everyone involved often gets caught between wanting to do something totally different with these famous songs — O'Hara, who doesn't always feel well-used, sings "Someone to Watch Over Me" while holding and cocking a gun, and "I've Got a Crush on You' is camped up mercilessly — and letting them work their natural charms.
Overall, the show is too afraid of emotional engagement, which is silly when you have these songs and O'Hara's voice and Broderick's likable self to deliver them. More truth and honesty would make the work considerably nicer — and, for the audience, easier to get.
"Nice Work If You Can Get It" plays on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St. Call 212-239-6200 or visit niceworkonbroadway.com
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