I saw the show on Saturday night; it opened last night [Tuesday, April 24], and I’ve been thinking about it -- because it’s such a monster operation – in between. This is the kind of super-entertainment that is cobbled together from great songs and old shows (the chief one here was Oh, Kay!, a Gershwin musical that opened in this same theater, the Imperial, in 1926). I remember following the versions of what became My One and Only, Tommy Tune’s 1983 huge hit Broadway musical hodge-podge of Gershwin tunes and rewrites of at least two earlier shows. Nice Workis the largest and showiest of several that followed.
It is no kind of sensible musical drama or even musical comedy. No one weeps over its plot, like Carousel, or rejoices in its comic paean to a movement or cause, like Hair or Godspell. We just have a great time getting excited over what its creators and performers can do onstage. It may have many kinds of elements, but it is not really a nostalgia show (Meet Me In St. Louis), a satire (Urinetown,), or a parody (The Boyfriend). Basically, it is a “Topper.” One terrific song gets topped by another; a wild costume or set gets topped consistently by increasingly showy ones. Funny or raunchy lines keep getting topped. And, of course, the amazingly talented singers, dancers, comics, and star-quality audience-pleasers keep topping themselves right up through the finale and curtain calls. Anyway, that’s what it tries to do.
Nice Work If You Can Get It manages fairly well. It has a platoon of successful Broadway leading players, each contributing special skills, many knock-out dance numbers -- every one of which draws enthusiastic applause, more than 20 wonderful Gershwin songs and a dozen orchestral excerpts – all beautifully performed.
Director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall knows how to craft show-stopping variations on standard showbiz choreography and make it look ever more exciting.
By the end of the first act, I had decided that the show had given up on anything resembling a consistent plot. But Act 2 does manage to tie it all together into a completed story, if we don’t ask too many questions. We start with a wastrel playboy, Matthew Broderick, who sings and dances throughout and manages to look and sound acceptable because of his patented charm, which makes us want to think we don’t really have to have Fred Astaire here. His annoying pretty blonde girlfriend, played by beautiful Robyn Hurder, really can sing and dance but seems goofy enough to move down to a comic role. And when Jimmy [Broderick] meets Billie, a tough bootlegger [it is 1927] played by Kelli O’Hara, we have the obvious lead couple. However, there doesn’t seem to be any chance that anyone would let the broke playboy and street urchin get together for more than a fling. Shortly, they have both changed personalities twice [so that she can sing “Treat Me Rough” to him], and the Vice Squad (don’t ask!) wants both of them arrested. Jimmy’s social-climbing girlfriend is adrift and attracted to a gangster who says he will become King of England, and Billy has become a kitchen slave, or something like that.
I might as well admit that I think that Kelli O’Hara can do no wrong. She was glorious in Pajama Game and South Pacific. And, while she is not a peculiar star like Carol Channing who has to fit the role to her own bizarre persona, O’Hara is a good enough comic and dancer to play these “topper” roles and still look gorgeous and sing in any style superbly. It ain’t easy to get away with singing “Someone to Watch Over Me” touchingly while shouldering and dressing a rifle. She works beautifully with Broderick, and he seems to be genuinely taken with her.
A delicious lead comic, Judy Kaye can sing like an opera star, or – playing Florence Foster Jenkins – like a tone-deaf screech-owl who wants to be an opera star. Here she does everything from mocking modern music and singing “By Strauss” to clowning winningly and swinging from a chandelier. She’s paired with another old pro, Michael McGrath in funny bits and song and dance showstoppers.
Then, finally, Estelle Parsons, who will be 85 in November, shows up near the end of the show and steals a couple of scenes, looking wonderful and providing the kind of stage command necessary to make impossible dialogue and hokey numbers seem inevitable and just right. I think of Ms. Parsons as a distinguished character actress and forget that she has had very significant singing roles in historically important musicals.
Martin Pakledinaz contributes ever-gaudier costumes, but some of them are peculiar enough to strike me as private jokes. I’m not anxious to move into Derek McLane’s sets either, but they are certainly toppers and plenty eccentric. The program lists the sets in terms such as, “The Ritzy Front Lawn of Jimmy’s Beach House,” “The Ritzy Bathroom,” “Jimmy’s Ritzy Bedroom,” “The Ritzy Veranda”; so I guess those increasingly gaudy sets are right on. It doesn’t say that we might actually want to own such “ritzy” rooms. I think that Peter Kaczorowski’s handsome lighting is also in the spirit of outdoing what came before, but I don’t know how much joking there is in the progression from his initial very moody lighting of the dark “Speakeasy” and “Dimly Lit Dock” on to the glaring finale with colors exploding all over the stage.
Next best choice for the jokey final bows – because “Comedy Tonight!” is a Sondheim number -- is Gershwin’s “They All Laughed” to end with. “Who’s got the last laugh now?” it asks. Well, if all these pros’ elaborate work draws large enough audiences, I guess their Nice Work does.