By Patrick O’Brien
Every 10, 15, 20 years, a “new Gershwin musical” makes its way to Broadway. The formula is pretty solid if the consistent Tony nods are anything to go by: A silly plot wrapped around Roaring Twenties culture, rejiggered from unrevivably old musicals, all in the service of furthering George and Ira Gershwin’s immortal songbook. (And their estates.)
World-shaking, mortgage-your-house, sell-an-organ essential viewing? Perhaps not. (Though the continued renewal of the Gershwins’ music is to the culture’s advantage.)
But fun? Definitely. And the newest “new Gershwin musical,” 2012’s Nice Work If You Can Get It, recently opened in Munster, is a welcome respite in the midst of a maddening month like May.
It’s interesting to compare Nice Work to the last “new Gershwin musical,” 1992’s Crazy for You: If that show—with book by Ken Ludwig—had Ziegfeldian glamour, Nice Work— with book by Joe DiPietro—is a lot more knockabout. Whereas Ludwig’s is about earnest showbiz strivers, DiPietro’s is about crooks ‘n’ shnooks. Whereas Ludwig’s is firmly escapist, DiPietro’s is knowing and sardonic (and very political). In a way, it speaks to the adaptability and timelessness of the songs they wrote around; the Gershwins had the brains and hearts for both zinging wit and deep emotion.
Both are important in a fluffy musical like this: Jimmy Winter (Justin Brill) is a playboy with three (pending four) marriages under his belt, a ritzy Long Island mansion, and not a care in the world; Billie Bendix (Erica Stephan) and her gang of bootleggers, Cookie and Duke (Stef Tovar and John Stemberg, respectively) need to get their hundreds of crates of hooch out of Manhattan before Prohibition vice squads shut them down. Boy meets girl, booze gets spirited into mansion, and romantic and farcical complications ensue, least of which involve said pesky fourth fiancée (Julie Baird) and her militant teetotaling aunt (Laura Freeman).
DiPietro’s work is perhaps a true Gershwin musical experience as they themselves knew it. When it fizzes, it sparkles, sure, but it also goes flat at points, namely because somewhat extraneous characters are played by talented performers who need a chance to shine. (Such were the demands of the musical back then.) For instance, Julie Baird may be great as a vainglorious second-rate modern dancer, but the show could lose her song, “Delishious,” and no one would notice. And despite the tradition of pairing off everyone by show’s end, the show could probably also afford to lose its tertiary, quarternary, and quinary (!) couples. Matching the stooge-y Stemberg with dim-bulb chorus girl Jeannie (Annelise Baker) looks funny and is funny, but doesn’t impact the plot in any way.
But the primary and secondary couples? They fizz and sparkle, no question. Brill moves like rubber and brings an unorthodox charm to the pampered playboy Jimmy. (Unorthodox charm may be a requisite for the role, though, seeing as it was originated by Matthew Broderick.) And Stephan, eyebrow firmly arched, excels as a no-nonsense woman in a no-nonsense business who suddenly has to put up with a whole lot of nonsense. (Her rendition of “Someone to Watch Over Me”—a longing ballad—has her packing heat.)
Tovar and Freeman, meanwhile, nearly steal the show out from under everyone else as the fast-thinking Cookie and the uptight duchess, Estonia Dulworth. Just add a dash of ham (a very big dash) and some spiked lemonade, and let the mayhem fly. (The luncheon scene in Act Two is the show’s boiling point, and the arguable highlight.)
Directors Danny Herman and William Pullinsi throw every broad musical-comedy trope at the wall—shimmying chorus girls, slamming doors, and pratfalls galore—and it shticks. Herman’s dances, too, dazzle the eye as much as Brenda Winstead’s collection of pinstripes, skirts, and furs.
So yes, their trappings may come and go, but the Gershwin rhythm is just as fascinating as it was nearly a hundred years ago, and the folks in Munster indeed make nice work of its latest incarnation. Do, do, do catch it if you need a sweet-and-lowdown spring tonic and nothing but..
“Nice Work If You Can Get It” runs through June 5 at Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Rd., Munster, IN. Performances are on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2 pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm; and Sundays at 2:30 pm; as well as select Thursday and Sunday evenings and Saturday matinees. More information and tickets ($40-$44) are available by phone at (219) 836-3255 or online here. Photos are by Michael Brosilow.