One of the more amusing moments of Nice Work If You Can Get It occurs when Eileen Evergreen, a rich, spoiled woman played by Jennifer Laura Thompson is relaxing in her bathtub (for what she says is the fourth hour), singing, and her bubbles come to life to harmonize with her. These bubbles, pink and frothy, are perfect representation of this musical – a light, sparkling and entertaining, but not substantial, musical.
Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall and featuring music by George and Ira Gershwin and a new book by Joe DiPietro, Nice Work If You Can Get It is a fun and silly love story about a wealthy playboy and a tomboyish bootlegger. With a sparkling score by Gershwin and Marshall’s pastiche-perfect choreography, the musical offers a bright escape from the blahs of present-day America.
We are first introduced to Jimmy Winter on the eve of his fourth wedding, which he happily informs everyone is not taking place because of love but rather to prove to his mother that he is “mature and responsible.” Naturally, that night he meets the woman destined to be his true love, Billie Bendix (played by the luminous and always excellent Kelli O’Hara), a bootlegger of gin. Billie needs a place to store her crates of gin and Jimmy owns a 47-room mansion on Long Island. They both travel there for the weekend with their sidekicks in tow, and highjinks and romance quickly ensue.
The book of Nice Work If You Can Get It is billed as being “inspired by material by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse” and borrows from an earlier Gershwin musical, Oh, Kay! Filled with flappers and every possible variation of The Charleston, DiPietro’s book also serves as homage to Jazz Age musicals. Prohibition is a large drive of the book’s plot as well as serving as the inspiration for many jokes – one of the more entertaining being Judy Kaye’s Duchess Estonia Dulworth proudly serving as the head of the Society of Dry Women. Kaye capably downplays the humor of her role, whether she is warbling about the virtues of Strauss waltzes or (literally) swinging from a chandelier after her lemonade is spiked by gin. Her love interest Cookie McGee is played by the reliably entertaining Michael McGrath, a bootlegger posing as a disgruntled butler.
All of the supporting ensemble is excellent, with Thompson channeling Madeline Kahn’s comedic roles as she plays the “finest interpreter of modern dance” who also happens to be a complete prude on her wedding night. As a dim-witted policeman, Stanley Wayne Mathis mugs up a storm, happily providing the straight man to Jimmy and Billy’s love duets. They are all beautifully dressed in Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes, whose bright colors and sparkles compliment Derek McLane’s sets.
That love story is what drives the musical, and it is just as light, frothy and insubstantial as the rest of the show. It easily matches the tone of Nice Work If You Can Get It, but at moments I longed for more sexual chemistry between the two leads. Broderick, in his first Broadway musical since The Producers debuted ten years ago, delivers a one-note performance that is blandly pleasant and at times seems absent-minded. His innocent deadpan does provide some very funny moments, but other moments required more passion than he offers, especially with a romantic interest like Kelli O’Hara.
O’Hara, one of the best sopranos on Broadway, is not given very much to work with as Billie, but she performs with such an effortless joy that the character is substantially enhanced. Billie is not written to be merely a 1920s ingenue, which is clearly demonstrated when O’Hara sings “Someone to Watch Over Me.” This lovely, wistful melody, easily one of Gershwin’s most famous, might seem odd for a pants-wearing, slang-talking, bootlegging woman, but after a few notes, O’Hara is handed a hunting rifle. Clearly experienced with guns, she cradles the gun and looks prepared to shoot on a moment’s notice, all the while continuing to sing of her longing for a man to watch over her. Expertly deadpanning, O’Hara pulls off this scene triumphantly. Another comedic highlight takes place when she impersonates a cockney British maid while singing, “Hanging Around With You” and purposefully spilling hot soup on Broderick’s lap.
O’Hara’s vibrant performance is almost a detriment to the love story of Nice Work If You Can Get It. One has to wonder why such a lively woman would fall in love with a character like Jimmy, other than he is the first man who expresses a romantic interest in her. When she sings of her longing for Jimmy in “But Not For Me,” one wonders if he deserves such sadness. But when the two duet on “ ‘S Wonderful,” in the style of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, dancing around and on furniture as well as up and down the curving white staircase that leads into the living room, one can believe they are meant for each other. They dance very well together, and the charm and joy of the song is depicted well by Marshall’s choreography. Their happy ending emphasizes that their relationship will not follow traditional gender roles and Billie’s intelligence will be appreciated by Jimmy. But I couldn’t help but wonder how long Billie would be satisfied by Jimmy. I was quickly distracted, however, by another dance sequence choreographed to “They All Laughed.”
“I just love rich drunk people!” one chorus girl happily while watching the frivolity around her. After watching a show like this, I can’t disagree.