Nice Work If You Can Get It
Music by George Gershwin
Lyrics by Ira Gershwin
Book by Joe DiPietro
Directed by Kathleen Marshall
Location: Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St., New York, NY
Set Designer: Derek McLane, Lighting: Peter Kaczorowski, Costumes: Martin Pakledinaz, Sound Design: Brian Ronan
Starring Matthew Broderick, Kelli O’Hara, Terry Beaver, Robyn Hurder, Judy Kaye, Stanley Wayne Mathis, Michael McGrath, Estelle Parsons, Chris Sullivan, Jennifer Laura Thompson
Recent years have seen an increase in an odd Broadway genre: new musicals that don’t include any new music. Ranging from cynically packaged jukebox entries to respectful retrospectives like Sondheim on Sondheim, the form has myriad possibilities. Whether a show merits its ticket price, though, depends on the imagination and craftsmanship of its creators. New York audiences, quick to dismiss anything that smacks of tourist bait, are rightly skeptical when billboards appear showing yet another roster of beloved songs performed by yet another star-studded cast. The good news about Nice Work if You Can Get It, which has already gathered numerous award nominations including 10 Tony nods, is that it doesn’t rely on its obvious selling points. Yes, Broadway luminary Mathew Broderick delivers his customary comic aplomb. And yes, George Gershwin’s iconic melodies and Ira Gershwin’s lyrics are so flawlessly constructed they could pretty much work in any context. But it’s the less-foolproof elements — a colorful and committed supporting cast, Joe DiPietro’s buoyant book, and Bill Elliot’s well-balanced orchestrations — that give the show its remarkable sparkle and sustain its momentum over the course of two acts and 20 songs.
Derived from the quintessentially 1920’s comedies of P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, the show’s screwball plot hinges on the impossible task of dragging Jimmy Winter (Broderick) into adulthood. Hoping to attain respectability and inherit his family’s business, Jimmy has chosen a bride, the esoteric modern dance pioneer Eileen Evergreen (Jennifer Laura Thompson). The problem, of course, is that responsible behavior is simply not in Jimmy’s DNA. Wealthy since birth, he is untouched by the real world and has no superego to curb his unquenchable appetite for jazz, girls, and bootleg liquor. Jimmy’s commitment-phobia is further exacerbated when he happens upon bootlegger Billie Bendix (Kelli O’Hara). The two share an instant chemistry, but Billie’s too savvy to let anything interfere with business. As it happens, though, Billie’s partners in crime Cookie McGee (Michael McGrath) and Duke Mahoney (Chris Sullivan) see Jimmy as a perfect mark. They hope to evade the long arm of the law by stowing a boatload of gin in the basement of the Winter family mansion on Long Island. To complete the ruse, the crooks (ineptly of course) pose as household help while Billie, more comfortable in suspenders than a dress, tries to use her feminine wiles to distract Jimmy.
Further complications ensue with the arrival of Eileen’s father, right wing Senator Max Evergreen (Terry Beaver) and her temperance-advocating aunt Duchess Estonia Dulworth (Judy Kaye). Even the lumbering Duke finds himself in hot water as his flapper sweetheart Jeannie Muldoon (Robyn Hurder) grows disgruntled when she finds out he not really a royal. Attempts at restoring order are made by the overzealous Chief Berry (Stanley Wayne Mathis), but his visits usually prove more intrusive than helpful. Like dominos, one disaster begets another until all hope seems lost for our protagonists. But Jimmy’s always had one trump card up his sleeve: his mother. Loose threads are woven into a perversely happy ending as Millicent Winter (Estelle Parsons) arrives with an arsenal of bombshell revelations.
Predictably, the score features plenty of Gershwin standards like “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Lady Be Good,” and it’s refreshing to hear these perennial favorites in a straightforward lyrics-driven rendition. But DiPietro and director Kathleen Marshall have also unearthed a few lesser-known treasures from the Gershwin catalogue. The frothy “Delishious” becomes a paean to self-admiration as Eileen bathes and primps in preparation for her grand entrance. The classical music sendup “By Strauss” forms an apt counterpoint to the bluesy “Sweet and Lowdown” as Estonia and Cookie argue for their respective musical tastes. For the most part, the numbers feel organic to the story, and even on the few occasions where they seem a bit shoehorned, comic possibilities are exploited to great effect. “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” a song designed for a couple who can’t even agree on their differences, seems somewhat premature for Jimmy and Billie who have only recently met. But with the addition of Chief Berry’s klutzily sincere attempt to mediate between the two lovers, the song takes on new life and Mathis gets an opportunity to showcase his comedic skills.
There are many such touches in the show, and its creators are wise not to depend too heavily on the rather simplistic character of Jimmy to drive the action. He functions more as catalyst than a hero, and it’s the world that swirls around him that provides most of the fun. Make no mistake though, knowing what to leave out of a performance is a skill acquired only with years of experience. Broderick gives a generous performance, turning on his patented man-child charm when called upon, but also stepping back and allowing his leading lady and sidemen plenty of space to maneuver. O’Hara makes an apt foil for him, as her persona, even in upbeat scenes, always carries an undertone of fragility. Her take on the wistful ballads “But Not For Me” and “Someone To Watch Over Me” give the evening just enough pathos to counterbalance the comedy. Marshall and associate choreographer David Egger put a modern spin on the popular dances of the prohibition era, and blend dance with physical comedy to great effect. Derek McLane’s opulent sets, Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting design combine to give the show the look of a J.C. Leyendecker illustration come to life.