Theatre Review: Nice Work if You Can Get It

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How It’s New York: It’s the great white way, and the show Nice Work if You Can Get It is based on an earlier show by those New York homies, George and Ira Gershwin. I guess that also makes it Jirish.
How It’s Irish: Kelli O’Hara stars, and her family are originally from Clare. Michael McGrath won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical. Lots of Irish names for the characters, in this musical made out of two older ones by the Gershwins.
Judy Kaye won Best Featured Actress in a Musical. 
I love love LOVED this show…”a joy from start to finish.”
This review was originally published in Irish Examiner USA, April 24, 2012.

Oh, did people want to sing during Nice Work If You Can Get It.

Lips were moving silently during the second song, the title song, a duet by Matthew Broderick, playing sweet but dim ne’er-do-well playboy Jimmy Winter, and Kelli O’Hara, as tough-but-tender bootlegger in boy’s clothes, Billie Bendix.

And I was right there with them, as tune after tune was a George and Ira Gershwin great, accompanied by a top-notch 17-piece orchestra.
Incidental music for scene-changes was drawn from more Gershwin compositions, including “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Preludes I and II” (the music is helpfully noted in the program).

If you’ve forgotten how catchy George Gershwin’s Broadway tunes are, you’ll be reminded here.
The pace is bright, jazzy and rhythmic; kudos to music supervision/arranger David Chase; music director/conductor Tom Murray. And what about Ira’s lyrics:

“…the only work that really brings enjoyment
is the kind that is for girl and boy meant
fall in love and you won’t regret it
that’s the best work of all, if you can get it…”

Those lead in to the well known refrain, “Holdin’ hands at midnight, ‘neath a starry sky…”
It’s so nice to hear the clever intros to these standards.

And boy, when we get to the chorus, we want to sing. 

This new Broadway musical, that opened April 24, is not a review, but a yummy comedy by Joe DiPietro (Memphis) very loosely based on the 1926 musical Oh, Kay! with a book by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton.

That musical also featured a plot around bootlegging, and included some tunes featured in Nice Work If You Can Get It, such as “Someone to Watch Over Me,” but also had some tunes that probably wouldn’t wash today, like the minstrel number “Clap Yo’ Hands.”

This new musical is a joy from start to finish, with exuberant and witty choreography from director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall, smart performances from all of the cast, including the chorus, and snappy banter from author Joe DiPietro. 

Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes and Derek McLane’s scene design constantly charmed and surprised, aided by Peter Kaczorowski’s painterly lights. All of the design, including Paul Huntley’s hair and wigs, was gorgeous.

Like one of the screwball comedies of the 20s and 30s, this is a play in which every eligible person will find a match by the end of the show. The fun is watching how they get there. 

We meet Jimmy Winter (Matthew Broderick) at a speakeasy the night before his marriage to modern dancer Eileen Evergreen (Jennifer Laura Thompson).
A bootlegging gang of Cookie McGee (Michael McGrath), Duke Mahoney (Chris Sullivan) and Billie Bendix (O’Hara) are first delivering hooch, then fleeing when the police raid the joint. Notice all the Irish names here!

There were of course lots of Irish people involved in bootlegging.

From a chance encounter with Winter, which leads to the title duet, Billie realizes his Long Island home would be a great place to store their delivery.

The cast of “Nice Work If You Can Get It” (Joan Marcus)

You can probably guess what comes next.
The gang decamps there, only to find Jimmy and his new bride arriving.
Cookie poses as a butler, while the self-absorbed Eileen (Jennifer Laura Thompson), whose outlandish dance spoofs Isadora Duncan, delays the wedding night until the right moment.
Meanwhile Billie and Jimmy fall in love.

More complications arise when Eileen’s father Senator Max Evergreen (Terry Beaver), who is also a judge and a reverend, arrive, with his sister, the stuffy Duchess Estonia Dulworth (Judy Kaye) and her Vice Squad (male dancers in stiff padded pinstripe suits, whose upper bodies move like a line of Incredible Hulks).

There are 15 songs in “Nice Work,” many of them well-beloved hits like “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “‘S Wonderful,” with a few fun but lesser known songs like “Delishious” and “Blah Blah Blah.”
You can read all of the lyrics at niceworkonbroadway.com/song-book.

“blah, blah, blah, blah moon
blah, blah, blah, above
blah, blah, blah, blah croon
blah, blah, blah, blah love”

is one of my favorites.

DiPietro has worked the songs seamlessly into the plot, for the most part, and they even move the action forward. This is quite an achievement, as it would be all too easy to write a script and put in “great Gershwin charmer here.”

Instead, we have “I’ve Got to Be There” as a hymn to Winter’s soon-to-be-lost bachelor life; “Do, Do, Do” as a reluctant seduction from brash, dumb chorine Jeannie Muldoon (Robyn Hurder) to Duke, whom she thinks is a real duke (played with stupid appeal by Chris Sullivan), and “Looking for a Boy” as a hilarious drunken admission by Dulworth, who is the uptight leader of the “Society of Dry Women.”

That “blah blah blah” song is Duke’s bashful love song to Jeannie, who hears it and is, actually, impressed, which just makes the song even funnier.

I could listen to Kelli O’Hara sing all day, and clearly I’m not alone. 

The slim blonde actress (whose family hails from County Clare) has been nominated for a Tony award three times, in Pajama Game, Light in the Piazza, and South Pacific.

It wouldn’t be surprising if this time she gets one – she plays Billie as a wise-cracking but romantic gal, and seems to have stepped out of a black and white tuner.
Her partner Cookie tells her she’s smart, and shrewd, with “the tenacity of an Irish priest at an open bar.”When she decides to distract Jimmy from noticing the bootlegged liquor in the basement by using her “female stuff,” she’s hilarious.

Her attempt at seduction has her falling on the bed with her legs in the air and wobbling on her heels.

Broderick as Jimmy at first seems a little too chubby, and his voice a little reedy – but he grows on you.He’s only a fair dancer, but his comic delivery of Jimmy’s mild but dumb observations is pitch-perfect.He tells Billie he’s not street smart, just “rich and good looking.”

When Billie confesses she lied about going to Harvard, he admits he suspected. Why? “You see, there are no girls at Harvard,” he humbly explains.
You can see the influence of Wodehouse here.

It’s McGrath as the much put-upon Cookie who runs away with the show.

Each exasperated “for crying out loud” when he’s expected to do something butler-like is hilarious, thanks to his perfect delivery.
“I for one am not going back to prison because that means spending more time with my family!” he says.
When forced to serve dinner – as Duke turns into the chef – he deadpans that if they can find the cat, there will be fish. He serves in an angry whirl, and the whole scene builds to a crescendo of hilarity when he spikes Estonia’s drink.

Kaye’s Estonia sings shrilly and comically, and she and McGrath are such perfect foils for one another they deserve a series of sequels.

Judy Kaye and Michael McGrath (Joan Marcus)

Hurder’s Muldoon has a Jersey Shore aggressiveness that is lovable and funny, and she’s quite the hoofer too.

There’s also a well-meaning but fairly simple cop, Chief Berry (Stanley Wayne Mathis) who ends up turning “You Say Tomato” into a trio with Billie and Jimmy; Mathis has a terrific voice.
And there’s a dea ex machina, when Jimmy’s mother Millicent, played by the venerable Estelle Parsons, appears.

Marshall’s choreography is breathtaking, particularly in the opening of Act II, as the chorus whirls to the tune of “Lady Be Good” (which is never sung).

I did find myself wishing for tap numbers, which would have been staples for this period.

And the pas de deux between Broderick and O’Hara for “‘S Wonderful” goes on too long.
Broderick’s dancing is fine, but not more than that.
But never mind. Nice Work If You Can Get It left the audience humming.

I was sorry I’d actually made it to the street while the orchestra was playing.

I’m looking forward to a cast recording. Broadway shows are expensive, but this one is worth the money you’ve earned from that other kind of employment.

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Copyright 2012 New York Irish Arts