Remember a few months ago that Honda commercial featuring Matthew Broderick retracing his steps as the iconic high school skipper Ferris Bueller? It’s not every day a fifty-year-old gets to play a young whippersnapper, especially in show biz. Kathleen Marshall’s new Broadway musical, Nice Work If You Can Get It, employs Broderick to enact a similar ploy as a dashing playboy. It’s nice work for any actor to get – but Broderick doesn’t quite get it, if you get what I mean. Get it?
Work may technically be a new musical, but it’s old or old-fashioned in just about every conceivable way. Memphis writer Joe DiPietro lifts the book from Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse’s 1926 vehicle Oh, Kay! to create a new outlet for such classic Gershwin gems as “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “’S Wonderful”, “They All Laughed,” and the title tune. So we get the cutesy 1920s Jazz Age scenario of tuff-tawkin’cross-dressing bootlegger Billie Bendix (Kelli O’Hara) and her cohort, smuggler Cookie McGee (Michael McGrath). Billie meets a drunk Jimmy Walker (Broderick) on the eve of his fourth marriage, when he admits that his Long Island mansion is sitting unattended. The plucky Billie decides to co-opt his enormous pad for her own hooch storage.
But wait, there’s more! Jimmy and new wife Eileen Evergreen (Jennifer Laura Thompson) actually end up heading back to his home for their honeymoon, forcing Billie and Cookie to pose as household help and spinning out into a series of misunderstandings and giving way to a handful of new couples. What follows is cute but dated, and despite a few highlights (and Bill Elliott’s lush orchestrations), an overlong Work feels like, well, work, for almost everybody onboard, starting with Broderick. The performer knows how to amble through Jimmy’s spoken scenes, but you need a trained singer and dancer to sell Gershwin’s music and Marshall’s choreography. He always looks unnatural and as though he’s struggling to keep up with his co-stars. The show also pushes O’Hara into new physical comedy territory, most of which she can handle but not without a slight hint of tentativeness. Marshall’s Billie attempts to show what Sutton Foster’s Reno Sweeney did last year in her Anything Goes revival: that these are broads who secretly want to be dames. But the chemistry between the two leads isn’t there, and Billie’s eventual transformation feels inorganic. (And here’s a memo to O’Hara’s handlers: she’s an A-list talent but she keeps taking roles in revivals and old-feeling new shows. It’s time for her to originate a new role to fully make her mark on the scene.)
Several supporting players do show how this kind of work should be done: Thompson dazzles in a first act showstopper “Delishious,” taking place in and then out of a tub, and the grumbling McGrath steals scenes with more aplomb than his tough Cookie can move moonshine around. And as a crusading prohibitionist, the wonderful Judy Kaye does for Work exactly what Carolee Carmello did in The Addams Family: proves that characters whose drinks are spiked will always get the best scenes. Kaye’s comes in “Looking For a Boy,” which sends her swinging from a chandelier. The last time Kaye starred in a big Broadway show featuring a chandelier, she landed a Tony for The Phantom of the Opera. I’m predicting that could bode very well for her this year as well.
Other design elements add to the joyful feel of the show, including Derek McLane’s colorful set design, Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting and Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes. Yet every time it comes back to its central screwball couple, the perspiration begins to show, and Broderick keeps weighing down a show that should dance on air. Someone alert Ed Rooney – Ferris deserves a detention.
Nice Work If You Can Get It
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