NEW YORK – The last time Matthew Broderick headlined a major musical was opposite Nathan Lane in the instant blockbuster The Producers, the 2001 show that ushered in a new age of irreverence on Broadway and scooped up a record 12 Tony Awards. Mel Brooks’ runaway hit was sublime silliness, a giddy valentine to old-time musical theater with nothing on its mind but delirious entertainment. The same could be said of Nice Work If You Can Get It, which brings Broderick back in a disarming ball of fluff that seems tailor-made to fit his droll brand of comedy.
Having scored a huge success last season with Cole Porter’s 1934 musical Anything Goes, director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall follows by time-traveling back to the previous decade and dipping into the songbook of George and Ira Gershwin. The results are diverting, even if they don’t quite match the effervescence of that last excursion.
Broderick is winningly paired with the luminous Kelli O’Hara (South Pacific), and the leads are backed by a string of top-notch character turns. Throw in 21 tunes from two of the preeminent practitioners of the American musical and you have a cocktail that should go down easily with Broadway nostalgists. It might also draw audiences seduced by the magic and glamour of Jazz Age entertainment in this year’s Oscar-winner The Artist.
Much like previous “new” Gershwin vehicles Crazy For You (a revamp of Girl Crazy) and My One and Only (hatched out of Funny Face), Nice Work has been assembled from the bones of an existing musical, the 1926 Oh Kay!, written by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse. The book by Joe DiPietro (Memphis) credits their material as inspiration. However, the two musicals share only a couple of songs, and DiPietro has observed the earlier story only in certain loose elements. But Nice Work adheres completely to the original template of twenties musicals by combining daffy comedy, screwball characters, jazzy dance numbers and the occasional tender ballad.
Picking up from Bolton and Wodehouse’s legacy, DiPietro concocts a suitably ridiculous featherweight plot with enough genuine chuckles amongst the corn, and some delicious political digs toward the end.
Broderick plays Jimmy Winter, an idle-rich playboy about to marry his fourth wife in a bid for respectability. While her predecessors have all been cheap chorus girls, current fiancée Eileen Evergreen (Jennifer Laura Thompson) is “the finest interpreter of modern dance in the world,” as she frequently points out. But unexpected romance rears its head when Jimmy meets low-class female bootlegger Billie Bendix (O’Hara), who stashes a boatload of hooch in the cellar of his Long Island mansion while evading the Feds.
The central joke is the gender reversal of making Billie the tough guy while Jimmy is the flaky lightweight in need of rescuing. The fact that O’Hara’s creamy refinement and limpid soprano make her the last person who should be playing a common criminal just makes it funnier. And with his cheeky nonchalance, Broderick is ideally cast to play off his persona as the eternal Ferris Bueller boychik. He makes no pretence at being the greatest singer or dancer in town, but he’s game for anything, and Marshall builds the musical numbers to accommodate him. The self-aware smile that keeps sneaking across his face indicates he’s having a ball up there.
As much as the leads, the show’s pleasures are boosted by its busy cavalcade of eccentric supporting characters. There are Billie’s cohorts, Cookie McGee (Michael McGrath) and Duke Mahoney (Chris Sullivan), cornered into posing as Jimmy’s butler and chef. Then there’s Eileen’s father (Terry Beaver), a windbag Senator campaigning for re-election as a staunch prohibitionist, and his even more righteous sister, Duchess Estonia Dulworth (Judy Kaye), who crusades against the “Demon Rum” in her role as proud founder of the Society of Dry Women. There’s Jeannie Muldoon (Robyn Hurder), a gold-digging chorus girl misled to think big-hearted lug Duke is part of the British Royal Family. And finally, there’s Jimmy’s worldly-wise mother, who swans in late, swathed in leopard furs, in the irrepressible form of Estelle Parsons.
Every one of these performers hits the spot, but the chief scene-stealers are McGrath and certified musical-theater treasure Kaye. Their duel between three-quarter and four-quarter time – pitting the elegance of the waltz, “By Strauss,” against the syncopated jazz of “Sweet and Lowdown” – is an ingenious mashup.
A bunch of wild flappers and an athletic vice squad complete the confection. The absence of a tap number is disappointing, although it’s likely that after the tap-happy explosion of Anything Goes, Marshall wanted to avoid repeating herself. But while that show’s extended dance tsunamis are missed, the choreography is fun and period-appropriate, notably in the bouncy numbers that bookend intermission, “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Lady Be Good.”
There’s not much to distinguish this throwback from previous retro-fests. But hearing polished performances of standards like the title song, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “Do It Again,” “’S Wonderful” and “But Not For Me” is never a chore. The less familiar numbers are equally appealing, notably O’Hara doing “Treat Me Rough” and Thompson’s aptly named hymn of self-adulation, “Delishious,” performed in a bubble bath with a balletic chorus emerging from unexpected places.
In Bill Elliott’s old-fangled orchestrations under music supervisor David Chase, the songs sound glorious, and the idea of incorporating Gershwin instrumentals is a smart one. (In a running joke, every kiss prompts a surge of “Rhapsody in Blue.”) I could gripe that “They All Laughed” makes a slightly underpowered finale, but that’s just nitpicking.
The design department provides lots to love, including Derek McLane’s amusingly kitschy but beautiful sets, replete with the obligatory grand staircase in Jimmy’s humble Long Island digs; Martin Pakledinaz’s fabulous costumes; and Peter Kaczorowsi’s sparkling lighting.
The Duchess of course could be talking about the very vehicle in which she appears when she complains indignantly, “Do you know what they put on the stage nowadays? Frothy comedies! Frivolous boy-meets-girl sex farces! And the music – don’t even talk to me about the music!” The stuffy puritan eventually loosens up with the help of some gin-spiked lemonade. But for Gershwin fans, Nice Work will be intoxication enough.
Venue: Imperial Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Matthew Broderick, Kelli O’Hara, Judy Kaye, Estelle Parsons, Michael McGrath, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Chris Sullivan, Robyn Hurder, Stanley Wayne Mathis, Terry Beaver, Cameron Adams, Clyde Alves, Kimberly Faure, Robert Hartwell, Stephanie Martignetti, Barrett Martin, Adam Perry, Jeffrey Schecter, Joey Sorge, Samantha Sturm, Kristen Beth Williams, Candice Marie Woods
Director-choreographer: Kathleen Marshall
Music & lyrics: George and Ira Gershwin
Book: Joe DiPietro, inspired by material by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Martin Pakledinaz
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound designer: Brian Ronan
Projection designer: Alexander V. Nichols
Music supervisor: David Chase
Music director: Tom Murray
Orchestrations: Bill Elliott
Presented by Scott Landis, Roger Berlind, Sonia Friedman Productions, Roy Furman, Standing CO Vation, Candy Spelling, Freddy DeMann, Ronald Frankel, Harold Newman, Jon B. Platt, Raise the Roof 8, Takonkiet Viravan, William Berlind/Ed Burke, Carole L. Haber/Susan Carusi, Buddy and Barbara Frietag/Sanford Robertson, Jim Herbert/Under the Wire, Emanuel Azenberg, Shubert Organization