Review: Nice Work If You Can Get It
|Judy Kaye and Michael McGarth sing "By Strauss/Sweet and Lowdown," one of the few instances where Nice Work If You Can Get It lives up to its potential.|
The worst thing about Nice Work If You Can Get It, the slight new musical comedy currently playing at the Imperial Theatre, is that the whole thing looked so promising on paper. Reimagining an old Gershwin musical (in this case, the 1926 Prohibition-era romp Oh, Kay) with a new book and Gershwin catalogue songs produced one of the most entertaining shows of the early ‘90s, the Tony-winning Crazy for You. Hiring the ever-inventive director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall, fresh off the massive success of last season’s Anything Goes, seemed like an inspired choice, as her previous work demonstrates a strong grasp of this particular brand of musical comedy. Kelli O’Hara is one of Broadway’s top talents, and teaming her with Matthew Broderick in his first musical since the similarly retro-modern Producers sounded like musical comedy gold.
Yet at some point during the development process, Marshall and her team (including new book writer Joe DiPietro) slightly but irrevocably botched the recipe. Though the bright candy colors promise a sinfully sweet piece of frothy entertainment, Nice Work leaves you with an off-putting aftertaste that becomes more pronounced with each successive number. You force yourself to consume the whole thing for fear of offending those who put in the effort to make it, all the while knowing that the next time it’s offered you’ll invent some way to politely decline.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong with Nice Work. The score is filled with time-tested Gershwin standards like “Someone to Watch Over Me” and the title song, and those classic melodies are as beguiling as ever. The plot, in which tomboyish bootlegger Billie Bendix (O’Hara) hides her liquor stash in the unused Long Island mansion of billionaire playboy Jimmy Winter (Broderick), is reasonably entertaining despite its predictability. Joe DiPietro’s book may adhere too closely to the Boy-Meets-Girl formula – you’ll spend the last 15 minutes in particular waiting for the plot to reach the resolution you saw coming from a mile away – but the script is structurally sound and provides its fair share of laughs. And Marshall stages the musical numbers with the inventive, playful wit and precise choreography that have become her signature, bringing the show closest to the greatness it could achieve with more revisions.
The cast is likewise hard to fault. Ms. O’Hara’s beautiful voice is perfectly suited to this style of music, and there is a refreshing honesty about her performance that’s missing from too many of the slickly-produced entertainments currently populating the Great White Way. Michael McGrath provides stellar comic relief as Billie’s sidekick Cookie, who is forced to impersonate the mansion’s butler to maintain their cover. McGrath is surly but loveable in the role, and does exceedingly well with the multitude of one-liners and physical comedy handed to him. And as a righteous Prohibitionist on the prowl for any stray bootleggers, Tony winner Judy Kaye really lets loose with her physically demanding and highly humorous supporting turn.
Of the main cast, Broderick is the only one who doesn’t seem quite right for his role. Essentially reprising his Leo Bloom from The Producers, Broderick’s comic awkwardness isn’t very well suited to playing a womanizer who’s been married three times and is constantly visited by young women willing to take their clothes off for him. And yet blaming Broderick for all of the show’s problems would be unfair, as he sings and dances as well as he ever did, and does land a consistent number of laughs throughout the course of the evening.
The real problem with Nice Work is that while all of the component parts are perfectly adequate, they don’t play off of each other properly, and the entire enterprise lacks spark. The cast handles their individual bits quite well, but rarely interacts with one another in a convincing manner, killing any interpersonal chemistry the show might have had. The show never drags, but it also never achieves the madcap energy and forward momentum needed to pull off the heightened farce that is the essence of musical comedy.
At the end of the day, you just have to wonder why anyone bothered. Nice Work bears many structural and stylistic similarities to the aforementioned Crazy for You, but the latter work is simply better constructed. Marshall would be an excellent candidate to helm a revival of that show, and many of this cast would do very well with that material, some of which overlaps with Nice Work anyway. Instead, we are left with this forgettable “new” show that isn’t the best work of anyone involved. While you won’t hate your time spent with Billie, Jimmy, and their friends, you probably won’t remember much of it either. And you certainly won’t be asking for seconds.