The Production Company ventures where commercial producers, and even subsidised companies lately, dare not tread to bring us the first mainstage Australian premiere of a Broadway musical this year. The move pays off handsomely, with a joyous evening of glorious music and comic delight.
Such is the popularity of those evergreen Gershwin brothers, this “new” 2012 musical is not even the newest Broadway show to feature their delectable tunes (that honour would go to 2015 smash hit An American in Paris).
Loosely based on 1926 musical Oh, Kay, book writer Joe DiPietro updates the writing, but not the setting, of Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse, assembling some twenty Gershwin treasures into this sassy, featherlight confection. Despite being set at the height of Prohibition, comments about stupid politicians and their stupid decisions seem all the more timely here and now.
A new musical has a massive advantage, of course, when its songs are not only recognisable but are amongst some of the greatest written for the stage. In a kind of pre-jukebox jukebox musical, the jaunty title song is joined by the whimsical “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off,” the infectious “’S Wonderful” and the sweetly melancholic “Someone To Watch Over Me.” “Fascinating Rhythm” provides some of the show’s best dance music for the act one finale. A mashup of “By Strauss” and “Sweet and Lowdown” contrasts the world of the duchess and the bootlegger with competing time signatures. The shows draws toward its end with poignant 11 o’clock number “Will You Remember Me?.”
All of this wonderful music is played in roaring ‘20s style by seventeen terrific musicians from Orchestra Victoria. In his exacting, inimitable style, music director John Foreman brings extra zip, zest and zing to the splendid score.
There may be one subplot too many, but director Roger Hodgman keeps the zany action frothing along so that the lengthy running time is barely noticeable. The comic crescendos of each act land with well-orchestrated timing, generating many belly laughs along the way. As with his similarly strong recent work on Opera Australia’s Don Pasquale, Hodgman underpins the comedy with the humanity of the characters, grounding and balancing the work with a degree of reality.
Dana Jolly’s sprightly, well-drilled choreography greatly enhances the effervescent tone of the show. It certainly helps that Jolly is blessed with a leading man whose dancing skills are vastly superior to Broadway star Matthew Broderick. Ensemble numbers such as “Fascinating Rhythm” and orchestral act two opener “Lady Be Good” break out with infectious energy, using the full width of the State Theatre stage.
Costume designer Isaac Lummis has really hit his strides with Nice Work If You Can Get It, designing with confidence, vision, flair and wit. Highlights include, but are certainly not limited to, the scanty chorine outfits for the opening speakeasy scene, the chorus girls’ gorgeous blue and white outfits and Mother’s shimmering black and silver getup beneath her luxurious white fur.
Set designer Christina Smith houses the orchestra on a dramatic incline, creating scenes downstage with ingenious use of three neatly matched, darkly decadent doors. The bathtub scene and swinging chandelier effect of the original are staged with aplomb. Rear projections help to suggest locations, and, in a classy touch, are artistically matched to the program and marketing materials.
Lighting designer Trent Suidgeest seems somewhat hampered by working around the rear projections. The floor of the stage is often bathed in vivid colour, but spotlights are used poorly, cutting off dancers at the knees.
While each has a substantial resume of work in their own right, the three stars of Nice Work If You Can Get It each owe a degree of gratitude to The Production Company for exposure and opportunities over the years. This investment in talent by the company pays rich dividends here, with three truly wonderful, individual and memorable performances.
Delivering suave, smooth vocals, Rohan Browne has never sounded better. As likeable playboy Jimmy Winter, Browne’s nifty dancing skills are well employed. Rarely offstage, Browne plays the large role with unflagging energy.
A leading lady who is a bit of a tomboy may seem an odd choice for a Broadway musical, but in the hands of singing actress Esther Hannaford, bootlegger Billie Bendix is an adorably plucky charmer. The role gives Hannaford the chance to display hilarious physical comedy skills. She balances this with heartfelt beauty in the ballads, breathing life into the songs to make them sound like they were written specifically for this show.
Christie Whelan Browne is an utter delight as daffy Eileen Evergreen, a woman so vain it barely even registers with her that she is part of a love triangle. Whelan Browne scores many a wicked laugh portraying Eileen’s “talent” as the world’s finest interpreter of modern dance. The role also gives Whelan Browne the chance to display a sparkling soprano. Joined by a bevy of bathing beauties, act one’s “Delishious” is a true standout.
The term “surprisingly good” is a thinly veiled backhanded compliment, but, in all seriousness, it seems all too apt in describing George Kapiniaris’ performance as Cookie McGee. We all knew he was funny, but who knew Kapiniaris had such deft musical comedy skills? Hodgman obviously knew (having directed Kapiniaris in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), and his insight is our gain. Kapiniaris underplays the comedy perfectly, and sings and dances with the best of them.
Gina Riley is in strong form as the withering Duchess Estonia Dulworth. Channeling Carol Channing byway of Auntie Mame, Nicki Wendt steals the final minutes of the show when Jimmy’s mother, Millicent, finally appears.
Nice Work If You Can Get It plays at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 23 August 2015.
Man in Chair reviewed Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara in Nice Work If You Can Get It on Broadway.
A quick footnote to The Production Company: if your audiences follow you to the Australian premiere of Nice Work If You Can Get It, there is an abundance of recent Broadway shows just waiting to be enjoyed in Australia. From similar shows like Bullets Over Broadway and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, to Cinderella, Honeymoon in Vegas, It Shoulda Been You (for the Playhouse), Newsies and even Something Rotten and Finding Neverland if no one else grabs them.
Photos: Chris Parker