Before we get too far, I need to tell you about the costumes in the new and wonderful Broadway musical comedy "Nice Work If You Can Get It," which opened Tuesday night and may be settling in for a long run. The costumes are by Martin Pakledinaz, a longtime Broadway designer who has taken just about every possible style of clothing in the Prohibition era and put it on stage.
You have your shimmying dresses, your vice-squad undercover suits, your house-staff uniforms, your formal wear, your wedding dress with a train as long as, well, a train.When the second act opens and much of the large cast is dancing on a ritzy veranda to what amounts an after-intermission overture, it may take a minute to realize that Pakledinaz matches the colors for each dancer and her partner so subtly — sometimes merely in the stripes of trousers — the effect is like a single palate that comes together or breaks apart as the dancers switch partners and then return.
I start with the costumes to make a point: Every detail in "Nice Work If You Can Get It" is finely tuned and beautifully turned out. Derek McLane's scenery begins by conjuring a backwoods speakeasy, then moves quickly to a Long Island mansion whose elegance is defined in its detail: Three opulent arches crown a formal mansion facade at the stage ceiling and once we are indoors, the set reeks of money. Likewise, Peter Kaczorowski's lighting design is precise and mood-changing.
And the cast is spot-on. Is there any ingenue role in musical theater that Kelli O'Hara — of "The Pajama Game" and "South Pacific" revivals — couldn't make her very own? In "Nice Work," even given a stellar cast, when she's on the stage she often is the single focus, by sheer force of her ability to sing any song fully in character, and deliver it with a striking musicality. This leaves her leading man, Matthew Broderick, in an uncomfortable position. Although his part of a rich playboy with a low-wattage brain means he must appear as a constant shade of gray among the colorful characters on stage, a part he delivers earnestly, his singing seems only serviceable by comparison to O'Hara's.
"Nice Work If You Can Get It" is a jukebox musical, and the machine in this case is filled with the songs of George and Ira Gershwin — who now posthumously have two shows on Broadway, the other being "Porgy and Bess."But the Gershwin brothers never wrote their music for a piece of theater called "Nice Work If You Can Get It."
The book for this new show comes from Joe DiPietro ("I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" and the score and book for "Memphis.")DiPietro took some of the Gershwins' best-known songs and some of their unknown ones, wrote a smart, entertaining story, then fir the old songs into new workable contexts that are sometimes astonishing. At one point the fabulous Judy Kaye, who plays a matronly Prohibitionist made of pure apple pie, gets unsuspectingly high and slips into "Looking for a Boy": "I am just a little girl who's looking for a little boy who's looking for a girl to love," she sings riotously at a luncheon that unravels to great effect. You just know that at the sight of it, the Gershwins might fall over — laughing.
The show is directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, who brilliantly did the same for the revival of "Anything Goes," now on Broadway, and that of "The Pajama Game." The dancing is pure class — Marshall excels, and is at her best at eye-popping movement when she choreographs for a large cast, almost all on stage at the same time. She, too, employs the '20s to drive the movement, and enlarges the dancing with her own ideas.
The show is studded with recognizable greats from the American songbook:"Someone to Watch Over Me," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "'S Wonderful," "Fascinating Rhythm" and "But Not for Me" are among them.
The supporting cast features Broadway veteran Michael McGrath as a criminal disguised as a butler, Robyn Hurder as a golddiggerand Chris Sullivan as the guy she digs, Jennifer Laura Thompson as a sort-of love interest (she has a great bathtub scene that ends up with the entire chorus) and a late-in-the-show performance by Estelle Parsons — one that Parsons carries off handily, just like the rest of the cast and creative team. Nice work, for sure — and we get it, indeed.
Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.