“Nice Work If You Can Get It,” which stars Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara, isn’t nearly as self-important and ambitious a disappointment as “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.”
The show, drawing hither and yon from the Gershwin songbook, demonstrates how hard it is to create the illusion of effortless whimsy.
A new book by Joe DiPietro pays heavy-handed tribute to the flimsy plots that Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse once devised for George and Ira to showcase their sublime ditties.
The result is mostly a flop-sweat inducing affair. However appealing Broderick and O’Hara are individually, as romantic leads, they’re weak sparks on damp leaves.
Fortunately, a pair of first-rate second bananas -- Judy Kaye and Michael McGrath -- partly salvage this misguided enterprise.
Set during the Prohibition, “Nice Work” has the requisite elements: Jimmy Winter, an aimless scion under the thumb of his tyrannical mother and betrothed to a society girl, falls for Billie Bendix, a spirited working-class girl.
A Greek chorus of statuesque chorines streams out of cramped places to serenade them as they court. This will all be familiar from more successful Broadway “revisals” like “Crazy for You” and “My One and Only.”
The action unfolds primarily in Jimmy’s 47-room Long Island “beach cottage,” where Billie and her gang of bootleggers have stashed their contraband.
Jimmy (Broderick) shows up unexpectedly with soon-to-be wife number four (Jennifer Laura Thompson), an Isadora Duncan-like dancer whose father is a senator. But Billie (O’Hara) catches his eye and soon they’re crooning the title song (far too early in the show, by the way).
There will of course be plenty of silly obstacles along their way to matrimonial bliss.
Most of the fun is provided by McGrath, as a snappish gang-member unhappily put to work as a butler on the estate, and Kaye as the senator’s Temperance-spouting sister. They do a divine duet that pairs “By Strauss” and “Sweet and Lowdown.” The unsinkable Estelle Parsons makes a delightful last-minute appearance as Jimmy’s mother.
Broderick is too long in the tooth to be relying on the boyishness that once was his signature quality, and too earthbound in his dancing and singing to put an audience, let alone his partner, at ease.
Thus abandoned, O’Hara can do little more than plaster a smile on her face and plow on through.
They do well by “Will You Remember Me?” from 1924’s “Lady Be Good,” though less so by such standards as “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “But Not For Me.”
In such a show nearly everyone’s work is seen in an unflattering light. Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are unpretty; Derek McLane’s sets are just serviceable; only Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting is better than that.
I did enjoy Bill Elliott’s brisk, brassy orchestrations.
In the end, though, director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall couldn’t overcome the fatal combination of ill-matched lovers and creaky machinery. George and Ira will undoubtedly survive.
At the Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com. Rating: *1/2
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * So-So (No stars) Avoid
(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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