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/

Dial “M” for Murder (Weathervane Playhouse – Newark, OH)

I mainly knew of Dial “M” for Murder because of growing up viewing the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film starring Ray Milland and Grace Kelly; I went through all of the Hitchcock films before getting out of grade school. The film is considered second tier Hitchcock, still better than first rate most anyone else, and I had always enjoyed it. The Frederick Knott play from which the film was adapted premiered on Broadway in the fall of 1952 and ran for nearly a year and a half; it closed just a few months before the film version was released. I saw the restored film projected in its original 3-D at the Wexner Center for the Arts this past March, so I had the story fresh in my mind when I attended the Weathervane Playhouse production of Dial “M” for Murder this past weekend. I’ll admit that I was tempted not to go as I had just seen the film again, and that would’ve been a mistake; Dial “M” for Murder perhaps works better as a play, and this is a solid production with its own flavor different from the film.

The story concerns how Tony Wendice, a former tennis pro, coerces a former classmate, Captain “Lesgate” (he has several names we find out), into murdering his adultering wife, Margot. You see, Tony knows about the affair Margot has been carrying on with television writer Max Halliday, and he knows enough about his former school chum to make him compliant in the idea of murder. However, Tony doesn’t plan on how things end up turning out, or that a certain Inspector Hubbard may hold the key (no pun intended) to unraveling the plot.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Patrick Clements as Tony Wendice
Patrick Clements plays Tony as all suave and sly, almost too slick to believe. He looks remarkably like Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride, and I was glad to see him as the lead after his clowning around in The Pajama Game a few weeks back. His interpretation was a little too slippery for me as he has to come off as genuinely affectionate towards his wife and above suspicion for the piece to fully work, not like a used car salesman with some nefarious clauses hidden in the fine print. Molly Griggs is Margot, closely hewing to Grace Kelly’s interpretation though perhaps even more vulnerable; her cultured accent is particularly good, and she wears her complicated hairstyle with confidence. Clay Singer, who was Sid to Molly’s Babe in the aforementioned The Pajama Game, plays her beau again as Max Halliday, making the most out of the slight part. Layne Roate is poor, coerced Captain Lesgate, coming off as a real ne’er-do-well while also owning it. Jason Samples as Inspector Hubbard is adept at bringing the audience along to follow his train of thought, quite important in the resolution of this piece. The actor who played the role in the film confused me when I first saw it, but Jason’s lines sprout naturally as he takes in the scene; he genuinely seems to care that the audience be along with him for the ride.

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (diblasiophoto.com) – Set Design: Jeremy Hollis
The entire play takes place in the Wendice apartment, elaborately designed by Jeremy Hollis; it is perhaps the most important character in the play. The apartment looks lived in, albeit by affluent tenants, and the requisite window, desk, and doors that open out into the hall are all there as needed by the plot. Great attention appears to have been played in decorating the set as well and including props where they would naturally be found, not as obvious instruments needed for the script. Director Tim Browning and lighting designer Jennifer Sansfacon work well together in creating a tense murder scene with shards of light piecing the outline of the double doors that slowly open to reveal Layne entering the apartment with murder on his mind. The scene is stylish in a way that would only work on stage, and the audience didn’t dare breathe during it.

I will say that the best place to sit for this production is in the center section, even if you’re in the back rows. I moved to the front right for the second half of the show and missed seeing the faces of the actors during some critical moments. Another patron commented that the desk and chair blocked her view when she was seated in the left section, so aim for as close to the center as you can.

There were a few snafus at the performance I attended, though I was told they they only occurred at that Saturday matinee. There is a scene in the first act that requires both doors to the apartment be open so that the placement of a certain key is visible, but this was hidden from most of the audience because one door remained shut, apparently locked in error. The murder scene also played out a bit awkwardly as the scissors fell off of the desk to the floor during the struggle. I have to hand it to Molly and Layne for integrating into their performance as well as they did; Molly lunged off the desk for those scissors with a determination that made me chuckle. I knew the play couldn’t go on unless she got them to defend herself and she surely knew it too, but I’m sure the audience didn’t notice; they were too wrapped up in the proceedings at full attention to notice anything that may have been off.

For someone quite familiar with the movie, I didn’t expect the play to be so enjoyable or engaging. Some of the plot points even played out better in this setting, as I think it was easier to follow just where Tony went awry in his plans in the play. It can’t be easy to stage such a play when a popular film version exists, but director Tim Browning and his fine ensemble have succeeded in making it stand proudly on its own quite capable feet.

*** out of ****

Dial “M” for Murder continues through to July 25th at the Weathervane Playhouse in Newark, OH (around 45 minutes outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://weathervaneplayhouse.org/weathervane-playhouses-2015-summer-season/dial-m-murder/

The Pajama Game (Weathervane Playhouse – Newark, OH)

It’s sometimes difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes a show work or not work, especially when there are moments that are good and then others quite awful all in the same production. There can be a lot of talent evident on stage, but that isn’t enough to carry the evening if it isn’t directed properly. And that, unfortunately, is the case with the Weathervane Playhouse production of The Pajama Game, which is a very mixed bag of both delights and coal, tough to take for even the most diverse of palettes.

The Pajama Game, based on the novel 7 1/2 Cents by Richard Bissell about labor disputes at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory over a raise, premiered on Broadway in 1954 and ran for two and a half years. With music and lyrics by the team of Jerry Ross and Richard Adler (they teamed up the following year for Damn Yankees before Ross’s untimely death at age twenty-nine in 1955) and book co-authored by the legendary George Abbott, The Pajama Game won the Tony Award for Best Musical and went on to be made into a successful film version in 1957 starring Doris Day. “Hey There” was the breakout song from the show that went on to become an often recorded standard, but the score also includes such gems as “I’m Not At All in Love,” “There Once Was a Man,” and “Once a Year Day.”

I saw and enjoyed the Tony-winning 2006 revival of the show starring Harry Connick Jr. and Kelli O’Hara, and I’m a big fan of the energetic film version. It was with fond memories of those productions that I attended the Weathervane Playhouse last night, excited to see a light, frothy musical performed in such an intimate setting. What I got was incredibly uneven, the result of weak direction, miscasting, and a lack of energy.

First, the good; Molly Griggs is an excellent Babe Williams, the grievance committee leader who falls for the new superintendent, Sid Sorokin, played by an iffy Clay Singer. Molly is stern but likable, and hers is the kind of voice that carries from the stage without sounding harsh or unpleasant. She brings chemistry to her scenes with Clay for sure, and she wears her smart ’50s fashions with confidence. In fact, costume designer Cora Delbridge and her assistant Kerbie Minor deserve special recognition for outfitting everyone in period-looking garb that evokes the era without being a caricature of itself. Everyone certainly looks great and moves comfortably as if the clothes they’re wearing were theirs and theirs alone. Everyone sings incredibly well too, especially Clay and Layne Roate as Hines, and it was a joy to see character actress Kayla Walsh hamming it up as Mae after standing out in One Man, Two Guvnors just a few weeks ago. Steve Herbst as Pop is sweet and genuine as well, though he does stand out awkwardly when they put him in ensemble numbers like “Once a Year Day” with all the kids. Barbe Helwig is a delightful Mabel, and her soft shoe in “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again” is adorable.

And now for the bad; Patrick Clements as Prez is handsome, engaging, and masculine in a way that makes him more suited to play Sid, and though Clay puts forth admirable effort as Sid, I see him playing Hines more effectively than the grotesque characterization that Layne Roate is peddling. Hines is the main source of comic relief in the play, but Layne oversells it to the point of being unpleasant and unlikable, and yet his singing voice is truly golden. Mugging isn’t acting, and proper guidance could’ve helped him reign in his performance to elicit genuine laughs verses the rote guffaws I head from a few loud audience members who seemed to be vocal in their support in an effort to let Layne know that they got the point and to move on to the next scene.

And boy did getting to the next scene take time. The overall tempo of the music is too slow, and the pacing within scenes is also off, as if the actors are afraid to step on each other’s lines (it happened anyway once near the end with Molly, and it was the most natural moment in the whole show). The slower music also had an effect on the choreography as it often felt like the performers didn’t have enough to do in their space, but that may also be due to the rushed rehearsal and performance demands on putting on so many shows in a short amount of time. Where was director Valerie Accetta to show Travis Burch (First Helper and ensemble member) and Layne Roate how to act drunk convincingly? They act drunk like people who have never been drunk, staggering around like they’ve been shot more than having had too much to drink.

It’s tough to picture “Steam Heat” performed in any way other than the one designed by Bob Fosse and preserved on film with three dancers in black suits and top hats, but choreographer Tracy Rae Wilson puts forth an admirable effort. EJ King and Brendan Henderson bring energy and pep to the show during their dance that is missing from the rest of the show, though they mostly dance around poor Demi Ahlert as Gladys, another miscast performer who smiles at Layne’s antics as Hines when she should be annoyed and needs additional coaching on how to play drunk.

Though the set pieces that move onto the stage to represent changing locations from Babe’s kitchen to Hernando’s Hideaway are well designed, why is the pajama factory where most of the action takes place so starkly represented? I didn’t expect the rows of clotheslines with pajama tops and bottoms gliding across the stage like I saw on Broadway, but certainly something more than the bland pastel geometric shapes on display here is warranted.

The show itself is very much of its time to be sure, but its charms are still intact, even though I’m sure human resources would have intervened to put a stop to a lot of the events in the story if it took place today (Sid all but sexually harassing Babe; Hines throwing knives about in jealously over Gladys; the factory workers slowing down and issuing defective pajamas, etc.). The songs are performed extremely well, and there is some joy to be found in this near three-hour production, but I left feeling that with a firmer hand and some Red Bull this production could’ve been so much more.

** out of ****

The Pajama Game continues through to July 11th in Newark, OH (around 45 minutes outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://weathervaneplayhouse.org/weathervane-playhouses-2015-summer-season/pajama-game/

Photo: Chad DiBlasio (www.diblasiophoto.com) – Scenic Designer: Rebecca Wolf
My friend Michael Nalepka and me. I knew when he started breathing loudly that he was getting frustrated.