Early in the first act of Nice Work If You Can Get It, a new Broadway musical written around the songs of George and Ira Gershwin currently playing at the Imperial Theater, there’s a number hinging on a woman’s elaborate self-pampering ritual. We find her chest-deep in a bath surrounded by bubbles (they even cover the wall behind her), and, as the number progresses, dancers emerge from the bathtub and fill the room with a sort of airy, bubbly glee before promptly disappearing. For the most part, this is what you can expect from Nice Work as a whole—an evening spent indulging in mindless, gleeful, bubbly fun.
Don’t mistake fun for lack of skill, though; the show is skillfully conceived and executed. Creating a story around preexisting songs is always precarious (even more so if those songs are as beloved as those of George and Ira Gershwin). There’s a risk—even greater than usual—that the book will come off simply as a way of linking songs together and not as a sound piece of work unto itself. In this case, book writer Joe DiPietro smartly does not remove the Gershwins’ music from its original era—he just turns the knob up slightly. Pulling together classic elements of Prohibition nostalgia from material by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, DiPietro and expert director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall create an upstairs/downstairs bootlegger farce, injected with a broadness that makes for some surprising recontextualizing of familiar songs.
The bootlegger in question is Billie Bendix (Kelli O’Hara) and she’s got a problem. She and her partners, Cookie McGee and Duke Mahoney (Michael McGrath and Chris Sullivan), have to find a place to stow their 400 crates of gin while they await instructions from their mysterious boss. Enter Jimmy Winter (Matthew Broderick), a wealthy playboy who (literally) stumbles on Billie after a night of pre-3rd-wedding bachelor party debauchery at a dockside speakeasy. After charming her with the title song, he mentions his 47-room “beach house” on Long Island that he “hardly ever uses.” He promptly falls unconscious, she swipes his wallet, and problem solved. Unfortunately, just as they’re loading in the last of the gin to the beach house’s cellar, Jimmy shows up with his new wife, a moralizing Senator’s daughter and—as she repeatedly reminds us—preeminent modern dancer named Eileen (Jennifer Laura Thompson). Billie and her fellow fish promptly find themselves out of water as they are forced to pose as household servants to protect their stash. Problem unsolved. Enter many, many more problems.
This is a show that really highlights (and depends on) its excellent performances. Broderick, charmingly droll as Jimmy, floats through the story with the ease of someone who has never really had to work for anything. A combination of Droopy Dog and Thurston Howell in his halcyon days, he’s perfectly content to remain in blissful naiveté (when Billie asks about his father, Jimmie responds with perfect sincerity that he died in childbirth) as long as it doesn’t interfere with his income. In many ways, Broderick plays him as the anti-Leo Bloom, the anxiety-ridden accountant he originated in The Producers, although equally as sweaty. This time, though, the sweat comes from trying to grab life by the horns rather than trying desperately to hide from it. Jimmy’s anthem becomes the peppy “I’ve Got to Be There,” there being wherever chorus girls happen to be.
The other men in the cast are equally as committed and capable (particularly McGrath, whose Cookie grows into the musical’s sort of strange, lumbering, uncouth Jiminy Cricket-like conscience), but the women are really the stars of this show. Robyn Hurder gams it up explosively as Jeannie Muldoon, head of the chorus girl gaggle, while O’Hara and Judy Kaye (as Duchess Dulworth, the Senator’s vice-hunting sister) both have show stopping moments. O’Hara’s rendition of “Treat Me Rough” as an ineffective dance of seduction is brilliantly awkward and Kaye’s “Looking for a Boy” midway through the second act evokes howls of laughter and a surprise finish. O’Hara’s Billie has a toughness and sensitivity that are equally as genuine, embodied perhaps most clearly in her rifle-wielding twist on “Someone to Watch Over Me.” It’s a great piece of direction that O’Hara plays beautifully. Finally, short as it is, Estelle Parsons’s belated appearance as Jimmy’s mother is tons of fun to watch.
As spirited as the individual performances are, I was particularly impressed with Marshall’s group choreography, especially the distinctive, unified movement of the Duchess’s Vice Squad. In color-coded pin-stripes (which, thanks to the joyously multicolored design of Martin Pakledinaz, perfectly matched the dresses of their chorus girl partners at one point), the six-member squad moved with a distinctive, unified angularity that was strangely thrilling to watch. Both lighting by Peter Kaczorowski and over-the-top sets by Derek McLane complement the material nicely.
Sure, there are some little dramaturgical hiccups here and there that don’t make sense and not every song fits perfectly into the story (the placement of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” garnered a groan or two), but, ultimately, who cares? Nice Work If You Can Get It is more cartoon than anything, so silly segues and nonsensical story elements are not only forgiveable—they’re par for the course. Basically, if you love those Looney Tunes episodes when Bugs takes on a group of coin-flipping gangsters, you’ll love this show. And, since it’s already garnered some well deserved Tony nominations, you better see it fast.