Nice Work if You Can Get It

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By Philip Pearce

AFTER TWO STUDIO THEATER productions loaded with social issues, The Western Stage takes an end of year breather with a bubble of tuneful toe-tapping nonsense called Nice Work If You Can Get It. 

It’s a show that turns the clock back to those dear dead days before the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution when the book of a musical hit was still just a flimsy arrangement of chorus girl and top-banana gag situations strung between vocal numbers. Depression era Broadway produced some of the most forgettable scripts and memorable show tunes ever written.

A savvy 21st century writer named Joe DiPietro has mined who knows how many clunky old character types and plot situations and cobbled them together skillfully enough to earn a 2012 Tony nomination for this nice piece of Prohibition-era pastiche.

As to the score, where authentic old hot tickets like Girl Crazy or Oh Kay might have hoped to log in one or maybe even two classic standards, Nice Work belts out one major George and Ira Gershwin hit after another. There’s the title tune, there’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” and there‘s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” There’s “Fascinating Rhythm,” “’S’Wonderful” and “Lady Be Good.” It’s a Gershwin treasure trove. At points of high emotion we even get wisps of “Rhapsody in Blue.” The script tends to send up numbers we’re used to hearing played and sung straight, so the mindless story line is blessed with a succession of sublime musical belly laughs.

The story? Well, it’s about Jimmy Winters, a frequently divorced playboy in the mold of Tommy Manville. The day before his wedding to a ditsy Isadora Duncan interpretive-dance nut named Eileen Evergreen, he falls for Billie Bendix, one of those feisty Ethel Merman tough gals with a voice of brass and a heart of gold. Billie is part of a bootlegger gang who’ve just planted a big haul of illegal hooch in the cellar of Jimmy’s ritzy Long Island mansion. Heard enough?

What sizzles and sparkles is the energy and skill of the direction and casting. Visiting director /choreographer Diane Jones Douglas keeps things fast and funny and she’s gathered a triple threat company who can act, dance and sing and make it all look so easy.

Tim Marquette, last seen locally as Leo Bloom in The Producers, brings brisk comic timing and a fine and flexible singing voice to the role of the air-headed hero Jimmy. As Billie, Jen Brooks sings wonderfully and doesn’t miss a beat in a plot which, true to a longstanding musical theater tradition, requires her to masquerade as a lot of other people, from a reluctant honeymooning bride to a food-wielding cockney housemaid.

Donald Sturch and Jayar Walker are funny as the two other members of Billie’s hard-pressed bootlegging team, but the top comedy turns in this show go to a pair of women who’ve long since proved their skills in stark drama and warm-hearted domestic comedy, but now turn in the two best pieces of knockabout farce in the whole performance.

As Jimmy’s glitzy, dumb and over-privileged fiancée Eileen Evergreen, Kathy Cusson arrives in a burst of bizarre dance posturing and moves on to an operatic take on a lesser-known number called “Delishious” sung while she soaks in a pre-nuptial bath. It’s a sequence that’s one of the funniest I’ve watched in I don’t know how long. Being no spoiler, I’ll not describe her subsequent wedding outfit, but it’s memorable.

Meanwhile, the versatile Mindy Pedlar is being delightfully determined as Duchess Estonia Dulworth who strides around Long Island smashing bar mirrors à la Carrie Nation and inveighing against the “Demon Rum.” Not hard to guess this lady and her teetotal message will get sabotaged by a pitcher of spiked lemonade. Pedlar’s table-top eruption into gutsy inebriation to the strains of “Looking for a Boy” (aimed at Donald Sturch’s softie mobster Cookie McGee) stopped the show with enthusiastic applause from an amiable but otherwise rather subdued Sunday matinee audience.

Then there is Heather Osteraa, gorgeous and lithe and leggy as ever, in the role of a zippy little blonde named Jeanie Muldoon. Singing and dancing “Do It Again” she falls for Jayar Walker’s mobster Mahoney because his first name is Duke and she sees that as a stepping stone to a lifelong ambition to be “The Queen of Engu-land.”

Greek drama needed its Deus ex Machina to tie up the loose ends of a plot. Nice Work If You Can Get It has the blissfully organized Pat Horsley as hero Jimmy’s high-powered mom Millicent, who checks in in the last scene to reveal all kinds of unsuspected secrets about almost everybody who counts, including dance freak Eileen’s U.S. Senator father Max, played with appropriate pomposity by Tom Kiatta.

If I have one cavil about this production, it’s with Theodore Dolas’s sets. They move on and off with pleasing smoothness, and the outdoor scenes like a New York dock dotted with contraband booze and the front lawn of a beach house are fine.  It’s the interiors, labeled “ritzy” in the program but decked out in shapes and colors that look tastelessly middle class, that might have profited from a fresh try. Something in the direction of an RKO/Paramount Art Deco look would have been an improvement.

Never mind, it’s a fast and gloriously tuneful show. I’m told Western Stage has installed a new sound system which now enables the booth, once reduced to guessing, to set just the right levels between singer and orchestra. The result is that sound designer Jeff Mockus and conductor Don Dally’s sixteen-member orchestra balance singing and orchestration just right, with every sung syllable clear as you please. And what a treat to have live music instead of a relentless tape!

Nice Work If You Can Get It continues through December 10.

Photo by Richard Green