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Nice Work If You Can Get It

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George and Ira Gershwin had one of their greatest successes with the 1926 musical, Oh, Kay!, built around the unique talents of the British star, Gertrude Lawrence. The zany plot concerned mistaken identity, a playboy millionaire, his fiancée who discovers he’s still married, and a gang of bootleggers using the millionaire’s Long Island mansion to store their hooch.

The barely-there book was better than many of its rivals and offered plenty of opportunities for gags, girls, and for Miss Lawrence’s theatrical magic. But, most importantly, the extraordinary symbiosis of George’s glorious score, coupled with Ira’s clever lyrics, resulted in a show that truly captured the energetic spirit of the decade.

Nice Work If You Can Get It is the latest show to raid the Gershwin songbook for a newly-devised musical. Inspired by Oh Kay!, Joe DiPietro’s book includes the bootleggers, the tipsy millionaire, an angry fiancée, and a similarly farcical tone. The Broadway production of Nice Work If You Can Get It had a starry cast and earned 10 Tony nominations, including some significant wins, but critical reception was tepid and the run disappointing.

“Disappointing” and “tepid” are words you must banish from your vocabulary in order to describe Musical Theatre West’s current regional premiere of Nice Work If You Can Get It. This hilarious bottle rocket of a production is a delight in every way. A superb cast sings with full-throated jubilation, dances with abandon, and mines every hoary situation for maximum belly laughs.

This is due in no small part to Larry Raben’s direction. A terrific performer in his own right, Raben understands not only the show’s style, but that the book’s comic anarchy must be tightly controlled in order to score with the audience. His precision and attention to detail are all the more remarkable when you consider the limited rehearsal time. Peggy Hickey’s exuberant choreography and Dennis Castellano’s stylish musical direction are vital elements that do their part in making the production soar.

A major change in DiPietro’s book is to change the focus from a single star vehicle to a shared spotlight on Jimmy (Eric Sciotto) and Billie (Kelley Dorney). Sciotto is that rare leading man who is also a fearless clown. His drunken buffoonery at the top of the show is both endearing and funny, but we immediately sense that there is more to this reckless rich kid. And it doesn’t hurt that he looks like F. Scott Fitzgerald in his evening clothes. We know that his life will change when he bumps into Dorney’s tough, no-nonsense Billie. Dorney’s Billie wears men’s clothes and runs her bootlegging operation with a fist of iron. Still, it’s no surprise that, after meeting Jimmy, she suddenly finds herself playing a Cockney maid and attempting an uproariously awkward striptease. These two belong together, and we can’t wait for them work through the complications and fall into each other’s arms singing a Gershwin tune.

Jason Graae’s Cookie McGee is a member of Billie’s gang, but plot contrivances force him to masquerade as the most irascible butler on Long Island. His barbs are particularly aimed at Estonia Dulworth (Kathy Fitzgerald), a temperance crusader who sniffs out bootleggers and their demon rum. Think Margaret Dumont meets Carrie Nation. The two combatants spar and squabble amusingly throughout the show until the side-splitting bridal luncheon in which Cookie spikes Estonia’s lemonade, and she winds up actually swinging from a chandelier. Graae and Fitzgerald are comic pros at the top of their game.

The rest of the cast is just as talented and equally committed to their crazy characters. Melina Kalomas makes a formidable Eileen Evergreen, that pesky fiancée who is keeping Billie and Jimmy apart. She chirps prettily from a luxurious bathtub and never tires of reminding us that she is a modern dance pioneer. Matt Merchant is irresistible as the hulking Duke Mahoney, one of the bootleggers who is painfully shy. Maryella Maloney makes a perky Jeannie Muldoon a – I don’t actually know what she is. This is a 20’s-style musical, and girls appear as if by magic when needed. But Miss Maloney makes a wonderful counterpart for Duke, even when she discovers he’s not an actual Duke. Doug Carfrae is suitably stuffy as Eileen's father Max, and Gloria Loring makes a deus ex machina appearance to quash all the conflicts.

I could quibble that with a score as rich and memorable as Oh, Kay!, it’s a crime that Nice Work only uses two songs from the original. Particularly when so many of the interpolations have been previously used in Crazy for You and My One and Only. But I would just be shouted down by hundreds of audience members having a riotously good time.

Carpenter Performing Arts Center    April 7 – April 22, 2018    www.musical.org

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.