My first aural introduction to the work of George Gershwin was courtesy of TWA. His “Rhapsody in Blue” was the soundtrack for their commercial campaign for many years and filled my ears with an explosion of breathtaking sound. My first introduction to the Gershwin brothers was through An American in Paris. Again, I fell down into a chasm of musical bliss – and why wouldn’t I – the Gershwin brother’s music and lyrics helped to ink the blueprint of the American standard song. Everyone, from Ella Fitzgerald to Fred Astaire, has performed their music. Hollywood and Broadway have been defined by their sound; after all, they have created some of the most memorable songs of the 20th century.
In January, Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin’s last theatrical work, was revived on Broadway. While the all African American opera is certainly the Gershwin brother’s most controversial work, some of their more popular songs have manifested in the form of a brand new musical with old-school flair. Nice Work If You Can Get It premiered at the Imperial Theatre, located at 249 West 45th Street, last week and it is a rhapsody in laughter.
Nice Work If You Can Get It is a zany romantic musical set in New York City during the Prohibition era. It centers on the unconventional, kooky love affair between Jimmy Winter, a wealthy playboy, and Billie Bendix, a hard nose bootlegger. After leaving a his bachelor party for his fourth upcoming marriage, a saucy Jimmy runs into Billie, who is laying low from the feds while trying to protect her new shipment of booze. As he attempts to make a pass at her, Jimmy reveals to Billie that he has an enormous estate in Long Island that his family never uses. Billie and bumbling cohorts Cookie and Duke concoct the idea of storing the demon gin in the cellar of the mansion and the hijinks start from there. Over a weekend Billie, Cookie, Duke, Jimmy, his icy betrothed Eileen, Eileen’s conservative senator father, his uptight sister, her G-men, a troupe of chorus girls, a police chief and even Jimmy’s mother all converge on the property creating a hilarious adventure by the melody of Gershwin.
Writer John O’Hara once stated, “George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.” And after viewing this musical, I don’t believe it either. The presence of both George and Ira Gershwin were more teeming than ever courtesy of this production. As with any musical, the music and lyrics are the thing. And this musical couldn’t have a better foundation. The book pushes the production along; it is structure that is balanced on the music. Joe DiPietro created one hell of a comedic story to go along with the blah-blah-blah-blithe musical numbers. Derek McLane’s lavish set is extremely complimentary to the time period in which the musical takes place and director Kathleen Marshall’s choreography made me want to do the Charleston in my seat.
Ever since I saw Matthew Broderick pull one over on his parents and Dean Edward Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I knew he could never do anything wrong with me. And his choices on screen and on stage have made me stand by that statement. It’s been over 20 years since Broderick lip-synced to The Beatles and his boyish looks and charm can still convince an audience to buy whatever he is selling. Watching him on stage can fill any theater with joy. Kelli O’Hara is delightful. She and Broderick have great chemistry. Chris Sullivan gives a spot-on performance as dimwitted Duke Mahoney – Forrest Gump has nothing on him. Judy Kaye is a pleasure to watch as Duchess Estonia Dulworth, and the rest of the cast provide fascinating rhythm. But if Broadway gave out awards for breakout performances, my vote would go to Michael McGrath. As Cookie McGee, he gives some of the best zingers of the show. He is more than just the comic relief, he is the comic godsend.
Nice Work If You Can Get It is more delicious than a slice of Junior’s cheesecake. I could devour it and ask for seconds. Call me old-school but musicals always showcase the best of what is great about Broadway and harkens back to a time when Hollywood produced royalty. When a musical hits the mark, it is an undeniable bulls-eye. During the April 24 red carpet premiere, Sarah Jessica Parker suggested that audiences should, “run; don’t walk” to see this show. Now perhaps her assessment of this production could be biased since she is married to its star, but in this case I’m in total accord with Mrs. Broderick. Nice Work If You Can Get It is absolutely the cat’s meow. It’s fun, fun and more fun – the quintessential American musical done right.