An innocent egomaniac and a natural-born showman, George Gershwin loved being the center of attention. At parties, his propensity for sitting down at the piano and taking over the entire evening’s entertainment became so notorious that a joke circulated about the social triumph of the hostess who’d succeeded in making him promise not to play. (The joke ultimately found its way into a lyric by his more unassuming colleague Cole Porter.) Between his brilliance as a pianist and his infallible melodic inventiveness as a composer, Gershwin may have been amply justified in feeling that what he had to offer was superior to anything else that could occur that evening, but there were surely occasions when the incessant cascade of Gershwin, Gershwin, Gershwin became just a little too much.
The makers of Nice Work If You Can Get It, the new Gershwin cascade at the Imperial Theatre, have followed their composer’s party-entertainment policy, instead of the more disciplined and hardheaded approach he took when actually working in the musical theater. Their apparent goal has been to cram in as much Gershwin music as possible, from every source they could tap, presumably on the grounds that maximum Gershwin would equal maximum success, whatever its relevance to the matter at hand. The result rather resembles a big, noisy, overcrowded party, at which the guests are a truly mixed lot. At some points, you may think you’re having the best time of your life among these delightful people. A few minutes later you may find yourself looking at your watch and wondering if isn’t time to go home, except how the hell, in a room so jam-packed, are you ever going to find the hosts in order to say goodnight?
Buried under the bedlam is an upside-down version of the plot of Oh, Kay!, the 1926 Gershwin musical in which Gertrude Lawrence won New Yorkers’ hearts as a genteel English girl adrift in a Long Island mansion haunted by bootleggers. Joe DiPietro’s stumbling block of a rehash makes hash of any possible coherence, turning the genteel heroine into a sweet-natured but loose-living male American (Matthew Broderick), heir to billions, about to marry a relentlessly narcissistic society dame (Jennifer Laura Thompson), when he experiences true love with a tough-talking female bootlegger in boys’ clothes (Kelli O’Hara), who finds herself obliged to pose as his parlormaid, with her two rum-running cronies filling in as butler (Michael McGrath) and chef (Chris Sullivan).
Add the society gal’s pompous senator father (Terry Beaver), his ferociously prim Prohibitionist sister (Judy Kaye), an inept but nosy chief of police (Stanley Wayne Mathis), and the billionaire’s astringently take-charge mother (Estelle Parsons), and you have—well, enough plot for several dozen musicals. The experience feels more like channel surfing at a time when every network has mysteriously become TCM, and the theme for the night is pre-Code musicals. The choice of Gershwin songs, for which DiPietro and director Kathleen Marshall presumably share the blame, complicates matters by ranging through the entire catalog of George and his lyricist brother Ira, as if neither their writing style nor the taste of their time had ever changed between 1920 and 1938. The emphasis is on hits: Of the songs from, by my count, seven Broadway shows and three movies, plus a couple of cut-outs, the only item new to me was a pretty, blues-tinged lament called “Will You Remember?”—one of the few numbers that Marshall has the sense to leave blessedly unadorned by pointless running around, self-consciously madcap behavior, or dialogue interruptions.
Not all of the evening’s madcap behavior boils down to mere self-consciousness, fortunately, and not all of the choreographed running around can be called merely pointless. Marshall has some aptitude for shaping a wildly acrobatic dance display—the one that opens the second act makes a particularly strong effect—and she has the sense, periodically, to leave a low-pressure number unfussed-over, and let the performers’ charm speak for itself. When Broderick and O’Hara, both of whom can project genuine likeability, sway into “‘’S Wonderful,” you really feel, for a moment, that the qualities which made audiences love the frivolous musicals of the 1920s have been reborn, rather than merely mimicked in pastiche, and that a genuine love for the style, not just a crassly commercial exploitation of its nostalgia-market potential, has guided the event.
You only feel this at rare moments, regrettably, because so much of the material has been misused. The overcomplicated book and the over-crammed song list turn everything frenetic. The songs are “spotted,” too often, in situations that wrench them from their use and sometimes even from their sense. That sweet-silly love song “Delishious,” written for the early movie musical of the same name, gets turned into the narcissistic fiancee’s bathtub paean to her own ego; even the droll notion of the chorus girls emerging as bubbles from her bath to sing along can’t rescue charm so heavily stomped on.
One might feel the same about “Looking for a Boy,” which goes pretty high up on the list of songs not suitable for elderly-spinster characters, except that Judy Kaye has a miraculous gift for turning any material she’s handed, however inappropriate, to truthful comic account. Kaye also has, as all knowledgeable Broadway-goers know, a spectacular and solidly well-trained singing voice, plus a personality that can project, like Broderick’s or O’Hara’s, to warm a large house, as well as no shame or fear about taking risks. Yes, this is the show in which the elderly spinster gets drunk and warbles coloratura while swinging from the chandelier, and I liked it. In the hands of 999 out of a thousand other actresses, it would be an embarrassing exploitation of a painfully trite cheap gag, but we are talking about Judy Kaye, so the moment is real and treasurable.
Kaye doesn’t stand alone. McGrath, a fast and inventive comic, does more than merely make do with the less-than-great fixings he’s been handed; Parsons, as the dea ex machina, adds snap and incisiveness; Beaver gives his stereotyped role multiple shadings. And while the set and lighting design match the book and score in overdoing—where did lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski get the loathsome idea that icky pastel-colored washes enhance a musical number?—Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes, smart, elegantly cut, and varicolored, save the design world’s honor. Within the mess of Nice Work If You Can Get It, you could find a good deal of actual nice work—if only they’d clear away some of the excess junk they’ve heaped on top of it.