Nice Work If You Can Get It (Weathervane Playhouse – Newark, OH)

Nice Work If You Can Get It premiered on Broadway in 2012 and ran for just over a year. With a book by Joe DiPietro taking inspiration from works by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse, Nice Work If You Can Get It was created in order to create a show around songs from the George and Ira Gershwin songbook while they were still under copyright and able to generate royalties for the estate. The story created to fit around the songs involves a trio of bootleggers hiding booze in the presumed vacant apartment of a Manhattan playboy at the height of Prohibition. Throw in a spoiled socialite, a crusading Prohibitionist, and a rather dizzy Senator, add dancing and that great Gershwin music, and you wind up with this delightful production that closes the summer Weathervane Playhouse season.

 

Photo: Adam Karsten – Patrick Clements and Molly Griggs
 
Patrick Clements is the rich but rather spoiled and flighty Jimmy Winter. All he really has to do is show up and be handsome and suave, but that wouldn’t be much of a challenge for Mr. Clements; he dances like a fiend and proves himself adept at physical comedy. His voice is velvety and warm, proving that he is a real triple threat. I would think he would be perfect casting for a farce like Noises Off at some point once he’s done wooing all the ladies as the lead in every other show.

Molly Griggs is Billie Bendix, the bootlegger destined to fall in love with Jimmy. Ms. Griggs is perfectly sweet in the role though the part comes off as underwritten to me. She gives off a good sense of camaraderie with her fellow bootleggers in the play, and once again she wears her period garb well. I just wish she had more of the kind of funny moments reserved for the supporting cast in the show.

 

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)
 
Kayla Walsh is pure trouble as spoiled Eileen Evergreen, and she milks every moment for all that it’s worth. This show is one that gives all the best moments to the supporting characters, and Ms. Walsh pounces on each moment she has to draw attention to herself. She steals every scene, but the book appears to be written with that as the intent. She frolics in a bathtub then slips through a trap door in the bottom to emerge elsewhere on stage headlining the song “Delishious,” the title of which may just as well apply to Ms. Walsh as it does her character. I can see her playing Vera Charles in Mame, or even Rose in Gypsy at some point.

Ms. Walsh’s co-star Ryan Metzger would be a perfect Herbie to her Rose, if any theatrical producers out there are reading this. Mr. Metzger plays Cookie McGee, one of the trio of bootleggers in the play. He masquerades as a butler for most of the story, saying all of the kinds of things people in service would love to say but wouldn’t for fear of getting fired. But Cookie isn’t really a butler, so he can really dish out the zingers and sarcastic remarks because he just doesn’t care, and Mr. Metzger is the perfect person to deliver them. His timing is down and voice carries just the right kind of intonation that can generate laughter even if you didn’t quite get what he said; you would know that it was funny just by the way it sounded, and so you laugh. Sure, the script gave him the lines, but it takes someone like Mr. Metzger to hit them out of the park.

Layne Roate plays Duke Mahoney, the third member of Billie’s bootlegging trio. Mr. Roate plays the wan and mopey secondary part with great skill even though he doesn’t have a lot of material from which to work. I really felt sorry for him when he was thrust into pretending to be a cook, perhaps because I can’t cook and having to make a large meal like he did would’ve caused me to break out. He has a kind of helplessness in the part that is endearing rather than annoying as it could’ve been had it been approached differently. After seeing Mr. Roate in four productions this summer at Weathervane Playhouse, I definitely think this was his best performance.

Other notable performances are by Rebecca Keck as the domineering pro-Prohibition crusader Estonia Dulworth, and Barbe Helwig as Millicent Winter, who arrives near the end of the show, revealing a secret that stops everyone in their tracks. The only slightly sore spot is Kirk Paisley as Senator Max Evergreen. Mr. Paisley knows his lines and his blocking, but he seems to be listening for his cues rather than listening to what the characters around him are saying. He seems to express only one emotion – that of surprise – and so I didn’t buy that he was really interested so much in what was going on. It’s not like he wrecked the play; he just stood out against all of the terrific performances going on around him

 

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Scenic design by Jeremy Hollis
 
Jeremy Hollis’s set is impressive in size and design, opulent enough to pass for an upper class apartment but slightly off-kilter to be just right for some of the zany events in the plot. Some of the design embellishments aren’t perfectly symmetrical, and they shouldn’t be; this was an apartment that was rarely used and probably due for an overhaul anyhow. It still looks quite fancy and of the elite, however, and the way that the bathtub and has been integrated to serve the machinations of the story is quite impressive. As struck as I was by Mr. Hollis’s set for Dial “M” For Murder, this one is even better, laid out in such a way that every seat in the house is a good one for seeing the action.

 

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com)
 
Karen Sieber’s choreography is quite athletic and highly polished, definitely not for the faint of heart to tackle. She puts the cast through its paces with some tap routines that are quite engaging yet indicative of the period, and the cast seems to be having a grand time dancing up a storm rather than showing exhaustion like most of the audience would be were we to have to attempt the same feats. This is the kind of dancing that commands attention and applause, and Ms. Sieber is to be congratulated.

 

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Patrick Clements and Molly Griggs
 
Director Adam Karsten has a firm grasp on this material and keeps the action moving at a brisk pace. Mr. Karsten artfully navigates that often tenuous transition to song from dialogue, and he keeps the tone light and cheerful. As a result, Nice Work If You Can Get It emerges as a real crowd pleaser, and one of the better examples of the “jukebox musical” genre. Perhaps this work is better than most jukebox musicals because most (if not all) of the Gershwin songs included were showtunes already, having been in shows of the day and popularized as standards since. People of all ages are familiar with quite a few of the songs already from their use in films and commercials; they aren’t “plot” songs like in most of the shows we have now, so the audience can just enjoy them rather than listen carefully for things pertinent to the story.

The audience at the performance I attended was engaged throughout and was having a grand time, as did I; there isn’t much more you can ask for in a production this inspired.

***/ out of ****

Nice Work If You Can Get It continues through to August 8th at the Weathervane Playhouse at 100 Price Road in Newark, OH (around 45 minutes outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://weathervaneplayhouse.org/weathervane-playhouses-2015-summer-season/nice-work-can-get/

Thoroughly Modern Millie (Imagine Productions – Columbus, OH)

Thoroughly Modern Millie has an interesting lineage; the musical play is based on the 1967 musical film starring Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore, and Carol Channing. Only two songs from the film have been retained (the maddeningly hummable title song and Jimmy) while the rest of the score is original with music by Jeanine Tesori (she just won a long overdue Tony for Fun Home) and lyrics by Dick Scanlon, who also wrote the book along with film scribe Richard Morris. Premiering on Broadway in 2002, Thoroughly Modern Millie would run for over two years, win six Tony Awards (including Best Musical), and go on to perhaps greater success as a popular property licensed for performance by high schools and community theatres across the country.

Thoroughly Modern Millie is set in 1922 in Manhattan where country girl Millie Dillmount has arrived to find a husband, with her sights set on marrying a rich boss – as soon as she can find one. Along the way she meets naive orphan Miss Dorothy Brown, poor big kid Jimmy Smith, society matron Muzzy Van Hossmere, handsome but distant businessman Trevor Graydon, and evil whiter slaver Mrs. Meers. Will Millie learn to marry for love or money? Well, the answer is obvious, but the fun is in seeing how she comes to the conclusion.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Meredith Zahn as Millie
Meredith Zahn makes for a snappy Millie Dillmount, lively without appearing to suffer from a thyroid condition like Sutton Foster did on Broadway (yes, I know she won the Tony for it, but I think that her overzealousness was a bit tough to take in person). Meredith’s voice is pure and strong, and she blends in nicely when necessary with the other tenants of the Hotel Priscilla, all wearing their smart fashions with ease. Costume coordinator Jackie Farbeann really outdid herself in recreating the period without being too on the nose.

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Kathy Taylor as Mrs. Meers

Kathy Taylor is a delicious Mrs. Meers, so abhorrently conniving that you almost want her to succeed with her current business plan to see just what she might come up with next. Her cohorts Ching Ho (Dante DiNucci) and Bun Foo (Sharon Kibe) understandably cower under her domination, and their dialogue appears in English in projections that appear to the right and left above the stage and are for the most part well timed. The portrayal of Mrs. Meers and her staff has been a problem going back to the film as they speak in broken English and appear to be Asian stereotypes. Mrs. Meers admits to being a frustrated former actress who lapses into her lisp whenever her boarders are present (she’s playing a part to them, albeit badly), but effort has been made to make her Asian helpers sympathetic. Whether this is all offensive is tough to say – it didn’t bother me or the audience, but none of us were Asian as far as I could see.

Hannah Berry is a standout as Muzzy Van Hossmere with an incredibly strong voice, beautiful teeth, and a calming demeanor. Chad Anderson as Trevor Graydon has the matinee idol looks down, even if he sometimes gets a bit tongue-tied. Ann Johnson as Miss Dorothy Brown is sweet without being saccharine, and one can see why Millie would forgive her for most anything. Jared Joseph does double duty performing as Jimmy Smith with plenty of charm while also being musical director for the show; I’m sure he has more than a little something to do with how great the orchestra sounds.

The main set piece is a rotating platform that has interchangeable panels to transform from the lobby of the Hotel Priscilla to Trevor Graydon’s office to the estate of wealthy Muzzy Van Hossmere. The settings are suggested by designs and signs in place of elaborate sets, and it is the perfect way to use this space. There are even doors on the platform that swing off to the side to represent the rooms within the hotel! Scenic designers Alex McDougal-Webber and Riley Hutchinson deserve some special prize for pulling this one off.

As I mentioned previously, the orchestra sounds really terrific with nary a stray note to be heard, well conducted by Abby Zeszotek above and to the left of the stage. The placement of the orchestra obviously requires some amplification, and this is one of the few areas for improvement – it’s just too loud. When the singers and the orchestra are going full force, the volume level is too high to keep everything intelligible. Less is more, especially in such a small venue. 

Still, director and choreographer Rose Babington has breathed fresh life into this production, packing so much onto a comparatively small stage. Even the flaws in the book (is it just me or does everything get resolved rather quickly and easily at the end?) are easy to overlook when there is such energy and life to glide past them. I can honestly say I’ve never enjoyed the play so much, either on Broadway or on tour, and I urge everyone looking to enjoy a lively, funny musical to book a stool at Wall Street to catch this one before it’s gone.

***/ out of ****

Thoroughly Modern Millie continues through to August 2 at Wall Street in Columbus, OH, and more information can be found at http://www.imaginecolumbus.org/thoroughly-modern-millie.html