Let's be honest. I'd been avoiding seeing Nice Work If You Can Get It since it opened in the spring. My main objection was Matthew Broderick. Never been a fan. When @thecraptacular described him as "a reanimated corpse/marshmallow" in this show, I felt my decision to stay away was wise. That did not sound like a ringing endorsement.
Then I heard Broderick would be out for an August vacation and Will Chase (Pipe Dream) would be stepping in. Suddenly it seemed like an excellent reason to tick this musical off my list. As the lights went down I leaned over to my friend and said, "You know I hated Crazy For You." She gasped.
I enjoy a Gershwin tune. Who doesn't? Hitler maybe? Zombies? People who really have no soul? Spielberg. But I'm not easy to please in the musical book department. This show manages to take music I truly enjoy and violently shoehorn it into some awkward crevices to prop up a terrible book by Joe DiPietro (inspired by material by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton). Despite being chock full of Gershwin music, this Kathleen Marshall directed and choreographed production somehow managed to undermine the spirit and beauty in practically every tune. The music is forced to take backseat to a base and blunt story.
We find ourselves rooting for street-smart, business savvy, tom-boyish bootlegger Billie Bendix (Kelli O'Hara) who hides her Prohibition era liquor stash in the unused weekend beach house of newlywed Jimmy Winter (Will Chase), a thrice married playboy with a penchant for liquor and chorus girls. Jimmy arrives at the beach house with his new wife Eileen (Jennifer Laura Thompson) for their honeymoon, and stumbles upon Billie and her crew. He mistakes her pal Cookie (Michael McGrath) for a butler. Add in some temperance zealots (led by Judy Kaye), jokes about modern dance, and some demon lemonade and what you have is a right mess. Billie falls for Jimmy, Jimmy falls for Billie, but he's got to marry a respectable woman to please his mother...and even though he thought he married Eileen he's got to sort out an annulment from his previous wife first. So nobody's getting much action in a show where no one's quite married to anyone but everyone is oddly obsessed with chastity.
The great thing about the classic Hollywood movies of the 1930's (which
this show seems to think it is following) was that the simplicity or
obviousness of the stories did not matter because the sharp dialogue,
cracking performances, and overall lightness of spirit carried the work
along. Here, the wackiness is never quite wacky enough, the funny is
rarely funny, it's never sexy (ok maybe the one moment where Will Chase is being undressed is sexy*) and the romance is non-existent.
In the positive column, this show has got Kelli "Sing To Me Angel of Music" O'Hara, Will "Megawatt Smile" Chase, a cameo by Estelle Parsons, and the delightful Michael McGrath (channeling every bumbling comic criminal from my favorite 1930's and 40's films). But the negatives far outweigh the positives.
All creative elements seem to have been applied by technicolor sledgehammer. The obvious and vulgar costume design and garish and extreme lighting design really bothered me. The entire show feels overdone and underdone at the same time. Too much surface glitz, color and unnecessary crap (my eyes, my eyes) and yet anemic song and dance numbers that never bring the energy up. Jimmy's dance numbers appear to have been choreographed for a penguin
that Matthew Broderick would only have to move his ankles and his
wrists for most of the evening. Will Chase performs them admirably but even
he seemed to look confused as to why he had to perform this role with a
rod up his ass.
With each unnecessary song that doesn't really work for the plot, I found myself losing interest.
One of the greatest crimes of this show however is having Kelli O'Hara sing Someone To Watch Over Me
holding a shotgun for comedic effect. The person who made that "choice" deserves to be tried for human
rights abuses at The Hague. Come on. It's not funny. It's not
necessary for the plot. And you ruin an absolutely gorgeous song, sung
by one of our finest voices on Broadway for a pathetic and ultimately
cheap laugh. FOR SHAME. It's indicative of the mis-matched music and mood here and serves to underline that the marriage of book, direction, and music is an unhappy one at that.
O'Hara is the consummate professional and gives this show her all, but it's just not worthy of her.
What makes this material really challenging, is that the Jimmy is actually abhorrent. No one would fall in love with the playboy Jimmy Winter as written. He's stupid, disloyal, self-involved, and kind of a jerk. God bless Will Chase because if this asshat Jimmy was being performed by Matthew Broderick I would have walked out in the first five minutes. I also would have expected Billie to follow me. She could do better and she's smart enough to know that. Long Island mansion or not...
The more characters that were lobbed at me the less interested I became in their petty problems. The temperance folks are tiresome. The other romances are even less interesting than the main one (though I really liked Chris Sullivan as Duke).
The jokes in the show seemed to be written for one menopausal lady who was sitting in front of me who thoroughly enjoyed herself. And when vaginal dryness is somehow a running gag in a show I'll have you know you've lost me.
Chase plays the dimwitted playboy as delicately as he can manage. He actually delivered some of the lines with such air-headed glee that I nearly grasped Jimmy's dippy charm at moments. Chase's perpetual grin and easy going demeanor were endearing. Chase is certainly dreamy and you could forgive Jimmy's stupidity if Billie was looking to have a fling with him. But we are repeatedly told Billie is this smart gal so why would she fall for him? We never find out because the build up of their romance largely takes place off stage in a red satin-covered boudoir (maybe Jimmy's worst crime is that even with all his money he's kind of trashy too).
They do have a totally inappropriate for the moment/scene duet of Let's Call the Whole Thing Off. But it's played for farce not as their actual feelings...so we are left to wonder where their feelings come from. Even in
frothy shows such as Anything Goes you can get swept up in the sweet
talk, easy on the eyes charmers, and romantic moments if they are
there. Here, the music, story and mood set don't actually play that up at all. Besides an early in the story killer lip-lock, the sustained romance and love story here between Jimmy and Billie is a complete mystery. And you kinda need to know why they fall for each other because Jimmy frequently acts like a jerk. There's got to be a reason Billie sticks around for him. I mean if he was particularly good in bed, again, it might be plausible but we are beaten so hard with Billie's virginity stick that no one could even imagine her thinking what might be south of Jimmy's cummerbund.
Will Chase as Jimmy certainly makes this show a lot more palatable than if Lurch was playing the role, but it's still a tough slog.
*Though when they started to strip down Chase I thought of how horrific that scene would be with Broderick. I would have begged them to stop. Medusa-level-turn-me-to-stone horror.