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Gags, Guns, Gams, and Gershwin

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Nice Work If You Can Get It is a pastiche of romance, musical comedy, classic Gershwin tunes, and old time gangster flicks. It’s a fun evening at the theater, but very uneven, and too long. In addition, the leads are tried and true performers who are here miscast. But supporting players and the ensemble are outstanding.

The setting is Long Island, in July of 1927. The country is eight years into Prohibition, and bootlegging is a profitable but risky profession. Wealthy playboy Jimmy Winter (Matthew Broderick) is on a bender before his not altogether desired marriage to Eileen Evergreen (Jennifer Laura Thompson), self-proclaimed foremost authority on modern dance. Stumbling around, he runs into bootlegger Billie Bendix (Kelli O’Hara); their attraction is immediate. Billie picks his pocket when he passes out, and also manages to learn that he has a big house nearby, which he says he never frequents. Billie relays the news to her cohorts, Cookie McGee (Michael McGrath) and Duke Mahoney (Chris Sullivan). They decide the mansion will be a perfect place to hide out; they’ll stash their gin in the basement.

However, Jimmy and Eileen unexpectedly do show up, forcing Cookie to pretend to be the butler—albeit the rudest of all time. Billie and Jimmy reconnect. Although an eager beaver policeman (Stanley Wayne Mathis) is determined to root out the criminals, he neglects to detect the liquor. Eileen’s father, the influential Senator Max Evergreen (Terry Beaver) arrives for the pre-nuptial lunch, as does her aunt, temperance leader Duchess Estonia Dulworth (Judy Kaye).

Eventually, Jimmy’s chronically disappointed mother (Estelle Parsons) also makes an entrance, with some startling news. Throw in a rather silly side plot with bombshell Jeannie Muldoon (Robyn Hurder) falling for Duke, because she thinks he’s royalty, and that’s pretty much the whole story.

Gershwin music is interspersed throughout. Some of it works with the dialogue, some numbers just seem stitched in. Rhapsody in Blue is used to symbolize moments of high passion, with earth shaking kisses. It’s nice to know that even the greatest composers fashioned less than smashing songs; Blah, Blah, Blah is a real dog.

Matthew Broderick has lost none of his comic timing, and his voice is in great shape, but he seems exhausted. I feared for his health during his big dance number with O’Hara, `S Wonderful. It seems that the dance steps have been dumbed down, but were still close to putting Broderick into cardiac arrest. The one liners still zing, but hasn’t he been playing essentially the same downbeat, hapless character for years? The debonair bon vivant playboy he’s supposed to be is not in existence here. In fact, he reminds me quite a bit of the morose Steve Buscemi character in Boardwalk Empire.

Kelli O’Hara is a great favorite of discriminating theater goers. Her voice is splendid, she’s a fine dancer, and she possesses a winsome appeal which makes her instantly sympathetic. But it’s a stretch to accept this dainty creature in her disguise as a man, let alone a gun toting bootlegger. There’s a playful chemistry with Broderick, but zero heat. Her best numbers are performed when she’s onstage alone. O’Hara singing Someone to Watch Over Me, while she holds and cocks a rifle, is funny and wistful at the same time. She positively shines singing But Not For Me. And her take on a Cockney waitress is comical and delightful. I’d love to see her in a better wig; the one she wears is stiff and unflattering.

I’d cut the Jeannie/Duke numbers. They slow down the show, and do nothing to move along the story. The only problem is that Robyn Hurder is gifted performer, and very Marilyn dolled up in her orange sundress and platinum hair. I look forward to seeing her in a better venue.

Judy Kaye brings down the house—and nearly the chandelier—with her big voice and bigger attitude as the uptight temperance leader. Estelle Parsons’s star turn at the end of the play conveys a breath of fresh air to the theater. Michael McGrath couldn’t be better as the bootlegger turned butler; he’s cast from the Jackie Gleason mould. Jennifer Laura Thompson looks like a young Christine Ebersole. She kills it with her pretty in pink-pink-pink bathtub number; the choreography by director Kathleen Marshall is at its best in this scene. And the ensemble is excellent; while I don’t know if this show has legs, the chorus girls certainly do; they’re on display and gorgeous.

I see awards for the outrageously stunning costume design by Martin Pakledinaz. The wedding dress train that goes on for miles is worthy of The Carol Burnett Show. The purple sequined bras on the speakeasy dolls are perfect, as are the flapper outfits, the pinstriped suits, and the aubergine ensemble dripping with marabou. Kudos!

Nice Work If You Can Get It is an old fashioned kind of musical, one that’s appropriate for the whole family. There’s plenty of professionalism on the stage, lots of laughs, and of course, some great Gershwin music.

Photos by Joan Marcus

Nice Work If You Can Get It
Imperial Theatre
249 West 45th Street

Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. She is a voting member of Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and International Association of Theatre Critics.

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