Chicago Theatre Review
Nice Work If You Can Get It – Theatre at the Center
In 2001 Joe DiPietro wrote a script that incorporated several songs by George and Ira Gershwin into his story. He called the musical “They All Laughed,” after one of the songs from the Gershwin score. It played a short time at the Goodspeed Opera House to mixed reviews. Six years later he reworked show, which was now entitled “Heaven on Earth.” It was given a workshop performance in Boston, where it also received mixed reviews. However, the show was popular enough to play the Colonial Theatre for the next two years. When the production, scheduled to open on Broadway in 2009, was postponed, its leading actors left the project for other shows. Finally in the Spring of 2012 the musical, newly titled “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, finally opened in New York.
The new production starred Kelli O’Hara, Matthew Broderick, Judy Kaye, Michael McGrath and Estelle Parsons, and it was nominated for several awards, winning Tony and Drama Desk citations for supporting actors Kaye and McGrath. DiPietro also won a Drama Desk Award for Best Book. Critical reaction, again, was mixed to good, but not overwhelmingly great. The musical features some great music by two American masters, a batch of lively dance numbers, an assortment of funny, quirky characters and some good jokes. The old-fashioned book is quite similar to the plot of “Oh Kay,” one of Gershwin’s lesser successful musicals, that was about Prohibition in the 1920’s.
This fanciful story is set in New York in 1927, also during Prohibition. It’s about a wealthy and oft-married playboy named Jimmy Winter. The inebriated Winter has just escaped from his own bachelor party, celebrating his impending marriage to the spoiled modern dancer, Elena Evergreen. The two don’t particularly love each other but Jimmy’s mother has threatened to cut off his allowance if he doesn’t hurry up and marry someone she deems respectable. Outside the party, Jimmy meets a tough babe named Billie Bendix, who, along with her bootlegger buddies, Duke and Cookie, is trying to find a place to hide their illegal, huge stash of gin.
After stealing Jimmy’s wallet, Billie directs her partners to hide all the booze at the Long Island address on his drivers license, a 47-room beach house mansion that Jimmy confesses is seldom ever used. Of course, this happens to be the one day when the house has been reserved for Jimmy and Eileen’s wedding reception and honeymoon, and it’s only a matter of time before complications arise and mistaken identities run amuck.
TATC artistic director emeritus and Jeff Award-winning director William Pullinsi has teamed up with talented choreographer and co-director Danny Herman to stage this fluffy, nostalgic musical. More than a compelling story, the show is primarily a vehicle for stringing together and presenting about two dozen of the Gershwin Brothers best tunes. While many of the songs are well-loved and familiar to the audience (including the title song, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “’S Wonderful,” “Fascinating Rhythm” and “But Not For Me”), there are a considerable number of surprises, as well. “Sweet and Lowdown,” opens the show with a bang, followed by a naughty “Treat Me Rough,” and a clever bubble bath ballet that’s “Delishious.” Later there’s a plea for returning to the classics, with “By Strauss,” and a delightfully earnest love poem set to music entitled “Blah, Blah, Blah.” All the numbers have their individual charm, although it could be argued that a few of the songs could’ve been trimmed to two or three verses. Very little would’ve been lost. The musical director and conductor of the show’s six member orchestra is the masterful William Underwood, who makes these pieces hum.
The Broadway production lacked energy, but Mr. Pullinsi’s version of this jukebox musical of hits from the 20’s is brisk, breezy and a real ball of fire. Much of the credit must be attributed to the company of talented triple-threats who bring this show to life. Justin Brill is magnificent as Jimmy. His charisma and boyish charm, coupled with strong vocal ability and choreographic talent, make his Jimmy a true leading man. He’s matched step-for-step by lovely Erica Stephan. Her radiant smile, lovely voice and graceful dancing skill make this little lady an actress to watch. Both Brill and Stephan share an onstage chemistry that’s hard to beat and their comic timing is terrific.
Supporting these two talented costars are the incomparable Stef Tovar as Cookie, a character this actor plays so naturally and skillfully, it’s as if he was born to play this role. Mr. Tovar practically steals the show with his dry, deadpan comic delivery and he sings and dances with the best of them. He meets his match, however, when paired with the side-splitting performance given by Laura Freeman, as the prissy Duchess Estonia. Together these two opposites attract and are magical and marvelous. Other top performances include John Stemberg as Duke, Annelise Baker as the ditzy Jeannie Muldoon, Julie Baird as spoiled little rich girl, Elena Evergreen, Jake Stempel as an officious Chief Berry, Rick Rapp as the pompous Senator Evergreen and Debbie Diverde as Jimmy’s very progressive and outspoken mother, Millicent. In addition, the ensemble of youthful singers and dancers keep the show moving with flash and style.
Richard and Jacqueline Penrod have again worked their wonders on the Munster stage, creating a lush-looking unit set that adapts easily to several locales. Brenda Winstead has outdone herself with an array of sparkling, spangly period costumes that, under Guy Rhodes’ lighting, illuminate the stage even more. And, as always, Kevin Barthel’s beautiful wig and hair designs are the icing on the cake.
This is an entertaining musical that’s light on story and heavy on song and dance. But when you have such delicious, delectable words and music, as found in the wonderful George and Ira Gershwin songbook, sung and danced with such energy and enthusiasm by a talented ensemble of triple threats, audiences can just sit back, relax, forget their toubles and enjoy all the fun, frolicking and fascinating rhythms.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 5-June 5 by the Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Rd., Munster, IN.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.