Would there be Broadway musicals without the Gershwins? Probably, but happily, that’s a rhetorical question.
In the 2012 season, it is striking how much George and Ira still get around, and as Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara sing in “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” — ” ‘S Wonderful.” They sing many familiar Gershwin songs in this new musical, set during Prohibition.
Director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall (“Anything Goes”) makes great use of the talent. O’Hara, a gem, earned another Tony nomination for her work as Billie, a tough bootlegger. There’s a sweetness to her voice and presence, and she moves well as Billie, a tough bootlegger.
Broderick (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”) plays Jimmy Winter, a feckless, thrice married rich guy with a weakness for chorines and hooch. As lovely as O’Hara is, and as rich as the supporting characters are, Broderick is pleasant and very likeable. His voice is fine, but not one to load to an iPod. His dancing is not embarrassing, but he does seem to have a greater gravitational force field around him than others.
Still, the preternaturally boyish Broderick has a way about him and it is that charm that sustains this character. (Broderick is beloved on Broadway where he has won Tony Awards for “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “How to Succeed in Business” and was nominated for “The Producers.”)
We know these characters from old Astaire movies, and anyone who stops to watch the black-and-white films with street-wise dames, mugs with faces like potatoes and hearts of gold and the idle rich, will be drawn in. The Imperial Theatre takes on that old movie feel.
Two other cast members, Michael McGrath, playing Cookie McGee, a tough guy posing as a butler, and Judy Kaye as Duchess Estonia Dulworth, also received deserved Tony nods.
Joe DiPietro wrote a clever book, inspired by material from Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, which neatly accompanies the music. And it is the music, which continues to enchant. Besides the title song, other numbers include: “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You.”
Winter runs into Billie on the eve of his wedding, and they try to fight their mutual attraction. He’s drinking to talk himself into this marriage with Eileen (Jennifer Laura Thompson, Broadway’s “Lend Me a Tenor” TV’s “Person of Interest”) whom he keeps describing as mature and responsible – and if it were opposite day, she would be.
“This time I’m marrying a real lady, who’s never been arrested,” Jimmy says.
Billie and her muscle — besides Cookie, there’s Duke, a lug named after the family dog — store a cache of bathtub gin at Jimmy’s mom’s Long island home because when drunk, Jimmy told Billie that mansion is never used.
Of course as they’re unloading the booze, Jimmy and Eileen arrive for their honeymoon. Chorus girls pop up; Eileen spends an inordinate amount of time soaking in the tub. And Jimmy learns his last annulment was not signed, meaning this latest union is not legal.
Eileen summons her father, the senator who also happens to be a judge. His sister is the Duchess (Kaye), and founder of the Society of Dry Women. They both seem to have given up fun long ago and want everyone else to do the same.
Set designer Derek McLane does a great job, particularly with the bathtub scene in which Eileen, the world’s foremost interpreter of modern dance, and of course an intentionally awful dancer, soaks in a bubble bath through which the chorus keeps emerging. It’s silly and sweet, which is just fine.
A great bit of comic timing and singing happens at what is supposed to be Eileen and Jimmy’s wedding meal. Cookie, Duke and Billie are terrific rushing the swells through their meal. The Duchess hangs from a chandelier, singing, and is likely the scene that snagged Kaye the Tony nomination, one of 10 for this musical.
When Jimmy and Eileen are getting to know each other, he says, “I’m not book smart.”
She asks, “Are you street smart?”
He smiles, and explains, “I am rich and good looking. Turns out that is enough.”
For a play that’s about celebrating the Jazz Age musicals turns out that is enough as well.