Michael L. Quintos
- Associate Los Angeles Theatre Critic
Once in a while, you come across a stage show that, on paper, may not have had the buzz that other high-profile shows may have had initially, but then you see it … and it just completely surprises you in the best possible way.
That pretty much sums up my recent experience with the oh-so delightful “NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT,” Musical Theatre West's buoyant and sublime new regional production of the 10-time Tony Award-nominated 2012 musical comedy now on stage at the Richard and Karen Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts in Long Beach, CA through April 22. An irresistibly silly and infectiously tuneful stage show that will have you smiling from start to finish, this roaring 20's throwback with modern sensibilities provides lots of zany antics, lots of witty one-liners, and lots of spectacular song-and-dance showstoppers that will have you wondering—where has this show been all my life?
Featuring 21 time-tested songs from the rich George and Ira Gershwin songbook, this fresh but lovingly retro musical comedy stands out from the plethora of other seemingly ad-hoc Gershwin jukebox musicals thanks to the narrative framework provided by its joyfully comical book by Joe DiPietro.
DiPietro's wit-laced rapid-fire dialogue—peppered with plenty of outlandish twists, clever double-entendres, and deliciously snarky shade—has a timeless comedic quality that feels vintage but yet current at the same time. Unlike other old-school shows that feel dated, this unabashedly goofy show has a peppy newness at every turn as it presents what is essentially a 1920's period piece about a handsome, wealthy marriage addict named Jimmy Winter (the spirited Eric Sciotto), who is about to get hitched to his latest wife, Eileen Evergreen (the wonderfully melodramatic Melina Kalomas), who, apparently—and hilariously—is the world's preeminent master of the interpretive dance.
Of course, this new marriage is thrown an ill-timed (or is it) complication in the form of Billie Bendix (the marvelous Kelley Dorney), a tomboyish girl he has a meet-cute with outside the jazz speakeasy that hosted his super lit bachelor party.
On this Long Island Summer evening, a drunken Jimmy reveals to this stranger that his latest marriage is actually one of convenience rather than of real love. It comes on the heels of his mother's insistence in him marrying someone appropriate, lest he risk losing his inheritance. For her part Billie only partly listens, preoccupied by something.
Unbeknownst to Jimmy, Billie is actually a member of a fairly lucrative three-person bootlegging ring in New York. In fact, during the night of this chance meeting at the docks, Billie and her cohorts Cookie McGee (the comedically-blessed Jason Graae, whose line deliveries deserve their own "Burn Book") and Duke Mahoney (the very funny Matt Merchant) have been trying to avoid the cops while busy finding a discreet hiding place for their current stock of illegally procured gin.
Jimmy inadvertently provides a solution to their dilemma: an unoccupied beachside mansion he owns. Score!
With a new hideout location, the bootlegging trio—with cases of illegal alcohol in tow—rush to Jimmy's place and break into the empty home to store their stash. One problem: soon after their arrival, they discover that the mansion has since become the site of Jimmy and Eileen's post-wedding honeymoon! Oops!
But with their 400 cases of gin already hidden away in the mansion's basement cellar, the bootleggers decide to stay there anyway and take on fake occupations instead, so that they can keep an eye on their supply. Hilarity, as expected, snowballs from here as snarky Cookie instantly lies and tells naive Jimmy that he's the new butler—while Duke is the new cook and Billie is their new maid. To no one's surprise, Billie and Jimmy's chemistry reignites.
Elsewhere, Duke has a run-in with chorus girl Jeannie Muldoon (the fun Maryella Maloney) who mistakes Duke for… well, a real Duke. The two fall for each other.
Meanwhile Jimmy's new wife Eileen strangely refuses to let him touch her. To keep him at bay, Eileen whiles away the first day of their honeymoon locked in the bathroom for hours taking a bath.
Perhaps it is because of Eileen's family and upbringing that has caused such demureness and modesty in her? You see, as the bootleggers were escaping from the raid that happened on the night of Jimmy's bachelor party, the authorities were spurned on by Eileen's father, conservative Senator Max Evergreen (Doug Carfrae). Also present at the raid? The Senator's sister, the Duchess Estonia Dulworth (scene-stealing Kathy Fitzgerald in full-on Dolores Umbridge wickedness), who with her Vice Squad minions want to rid the world of the evil that is alcohol.
With everyone lying and disguising their true selves left and right, the audience is left in stitches watching all of this criss-crossing madness unfold. Will Billie end up with Jimmy? Will Duke come clean to Jeannie? Will Cookie get caught? Will the Duchess ever ease up on her quest? Will Eileen ever emerge from the bathtub?
Under the thoughtful, excellent direction of Larry Raben, MTW's fabulous Broadway-caliber regional premiere of “NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT” is an expertly timed and expertly assembled stage show that genuinely entertains as it delivers comedic vignettes and musical ditties with equal aplomb.
Perhaps this explains why the audience I sat with recently—with patrons of varying ages that range from 8 to 80—were all laughing boisterously in communal enjoyment at all the silly shenanigans happening on stage. Sure, it's a little square (your grandparents will love it) but it's also oddly eccentric in a great way. These days, it's rare to find a stage musical comedy like this that aims to please a broad spectrum of theatergoers (so much so that even the rare poke at politics here seemed impressively inoffensive).
The show skillfully combines old-fashioned charm with the giddy, bawdy musical fun of a classic like “ANYTHING GOES,” filling it with wall-to-wall over-the-top characters involved in very over-the-top activities. Yes, in this show, it wouldn't be outside its parameters to have a full-on song-and-dance production number in a fancy bathroom nor would it be inconceivable for multiple criss-crossing storylines and zingers to zip by within a single minute.
And even better, this production's excellence extends to every aspect of what we see on the stage.
The show's cast is without a doubt a stellar one. Sciotto and Dorney are convincing as on-again, off-again paramours and both are vocal powerhouses. Their supporting players are all comically-gifted, with Graae getting plenty of chuckles for his perfectly-spewed one-liners, Kalomas for her next-level soap operatics, and Fitzgerald for her larger-than-life presence. Not to spoil anything for those who have yet to experience this show, but her Act 2 appearance involving a chandelier is arguably the show's most memorable highlight (I'm still laughing in my head as I typed this sentence remembering the scene).
TV's Gloria Loring makes a grand late appearance as Millicent Winter, Jimmy's mom, adding quite a regal flair. It may be but a brief role, but her presence (and delicious line readings) make a lasting impact.
The remaining members of the ensemble are all peppy and enormously vibrant throughout—particularly in the high-energy production numbers that showcase their triple-threat skills.
Besides its perfectly-cast ensemble of musical comedy talent, the show is blessed with an array of colorful and luxe period costumes by Martin Pakledinaz that's enveloped by the pleasingly grand scenic design of Derek McLane. These opulent, "ritzy" environments are beautifully enhanced by Paul Black's lighting design (I especially love his work in the darkly-lit opening numbers, a moody technicolor pastiche that serve as gorgeous contrasts to the rest of the bright and bubbly setting).
The show's fantastic dance numbers—some with awesome tap-tastic routines—are courtesy of Peggy Hickey, blending old-school musicality with spectacular modern showmanship. Sound-wise, musical director Dennis Castellano leads a lush-sounding orchestra from the pit as they play Gershwin's lively score. The balance between singing voices and the musical accompaniment is superb, something that has been notably improving with each successive show in the past few years.
I have to say, I walked out of that musical in such a great mood, having just spent a good two-plus hours just laughing my butt off and falling in love with the madcap silliness and the likable characters, and feeling floored to still be surprised by, frankly, a musical that I previously assumed was just another of a gazillion Gershwin jukebox musicals with nothing fresh to offer. Thankfully, MTW's “NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT” surpassed what I thought it was going to be. I really enjoyed being pleasantly surprised by a show this way.
Due to scheduling conflicts, I somehow missed seeing this show when its first national tour passed through for a brief week-long engagement at Orange County's Segerstrom Center a few seasons ago. Believe me, now that it's on stage here in Southern California—in one of the most hilarious, entertaining productions I've seen this year—I would resist letting it pass by, if I were you.
Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ.
Photos © Caught In The Moment Photography/Musical Theatre West.
Final remaining performances of Musical Theatre West's production of NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT continue through Sunday, April 22, 2018. The Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts is located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA. For tickets or for more information, please call 562-856-1999 x4 or visit online at www.musical.org.