Gershwin Songs Pep Up Broadway
CRAZY FOR YOU
Musical comedy with music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, book by Ken Ludwig. Co-conceived by Mr. Ludwig and Mike Ockrent, inspired by material by Guy Bolton and John McGowan. Directed by Mr. Ockrent with choreography by Susan Stroman and musical direction by Paul Gemignani. At the Shubert Theatre.
CRAZY for You" trips its light fantastic way from Broadway to Deadrock, Nev., and back in the season's merriest musical comedy to date. A more enjoyable round trip would be hard to imagine. Inspired by the 1930 hit, "Girl Crazy," the fashioners of this new-old Gershwin melange fulfill the traditional requirements of the genre with a diversion that is both musical and comic.
The new Shubert Theatre attraction follows the trail of Bobby Child (Harry Groener), a 1930s Gotham playboy dispatched by his haughty mother (Jane Connell) to take possession of Deadrock's defunct Gaiety Theatre, for which the Childs hold the mortgage. Instead, Bobby falls promptly in love with pretty Polly Baker (Jodi Benson), the only girl in town, whose father owns the Gaiety Theatre.
Mr. Groener, Ms. Benson, and their fellow players handle the time-honored Gershwin material with polished aplomb. Benson's singing of "Someone to Watch Over Me" is something to cherish, and Groener proves himself a Broadway leading man for all seasons and musical measures. Among the recently reactivated Gershwin songs is "What Causes That," which serves as first-class duet material for Groener and Bruce Adler, who plays impresario Bela Zangler.
The production has been snazzily designed by Robin Wagner (settings), William Ivey Long (costumes), and Paul Gallo (lighting). Conductor Paul Gemignani wields his baton like a magic wand.
The show is strong on sight gags and acrobatics. (One spectacular pratfall begins on a balcony and winds up on the opposite side of the stage - a notable tumbling feat.) The comic dialogue occasionally turns topical. When her sleek foreign limousine sputters and stalls in the middle of Deadrock, Bobby's Ma exclaims: ll never buy another foreign car as long as I live." Lee Iacocca should appreciate that. The audience loved it.
One of the many highlights is the first-act finale, "I Got Rhythm," in which Bobby, Polly, and company join for a flashy finish. In reply to their chorused question, "Who could ask for anything more?" Not this dude.
THE MOST HAPPY FELLA
Musical comedy with book, music, and lyrics by Frank Loesser. Based on Sidney Howard's "They Knew What They Wanted." Directed by Gerald Gutierrez. Choreography by Liza Gennaro. Musical direction by Tim Stella. At the Booth Theatre.
JUDGED by audience enthusiasm at a recent preview, "The Most Happy Fella" displays all the signs of once again becoming a most happy hit. Subsequent critical response has confirmed the impression. Which goes to show that a 36-year-old musical can prove itself anew even in a world of passing fancies and changing tastes. Theater historians will recall that "They Knew What They Wanted," the 1924 play that inspired Frank Loesser, received a Pulitzer Prize and that Mr. Loesser's 1956 musical version won a New
York Drama Critics' Circle Award.
Discussing his approach to Sidney Howard's romantic comedy drama, Loesser noted that he had disposed of all the "political talk, the labor talk, and the religious talk" in favor of "a good love story." And it is the love story - the relationship between aging California grape grower Tony (Spiro Malas) and San Francisco waitress Amy (Sophie Hayden) - that insures the continuing appeal of the lavishly musicalized treatment.
A telling change in the heroine's name indicates what happened to the Howard original on its way to the musical stage. In the play, the heroine who became a mail-order bride is called Amy. Tony re-christens her "Rosabella." What's in a name? More than a song cue, you may be sure.
In the course of their correspondence, Tony had sent the object of his affections a picture - but not of himself. Instead, he substituted a photo of his darkly handsome ranch foreman Joe (Charles Pistone). Amy arrives and the inevitable occurs; she decides to tell Tony what has happened and return to San Francisco. How the authors resolve the dilemma is the time-honored stuff of romantic drama and musical theater - and none the less appealing for that.
As originally presented, "The Most Happy Fella" required an orchestra of 35 musicians and the enlargement of the Imperial Theatre orchestra pit. The accompaniment now consists of Robert Page's duo-piano arrangement. The reduction suits the intimacy of the Booth Theatre and proves eminently listenable.
The musical pleasures inhere in the richly inventive score: from the jauntiness of the title song to the ardor of "Rosabella," from the longing of "Somebody, Somewhere" to the girl-watching delights of "Standing on the Corner" and the Texan ebullience of "Big D." Such samplings suggest the range of mood and idiom.
Clarion-voiced Mr. Malas excels as burly, big-hearted Tony, and Ms. Hayden makes an appealing heroine as the spunky Rosabella. The splendid singing cast includes Liz Larsen as Rosabella's fellow waitress, Claudia Catania as Tony's skeptical sister, and Mark Lotito as a head cook with a voice to match his chef's cap.
So what's not to like about this "Most Happy Fella"? Liza Gennaro's occasional choreography fills the Booth stage with a swirl of color, thanks to Jess Goldstein's fetchingly rustic costumes. The production is enriched by John Lee Beatty's bucolic settings, romantically lighted by Craig Miller. In short, a vivid revival.
THE BALTIMORE WALTZ
Play by Paula Vogel, directed by Anne Bogart. At the Circle Repertory Theatre through March 15.
THE Baltimore Waltz" begins in a Maryland hospital room and continues as a fantasy voyage of real (or imagined) European capitals. The not-so-grand tour is conducted by Anna (Cherry Jones), a primary school teacher, as a distraction for her AIDS-infected brother Carl (Richard Thompson), a San Francisco librarian. Playwright Paula Vogel roams impressionistically across Anna's lengthy travelogue in a 90-minute playlet presented without intermission.
Beginning with a confession of terror at her lack of foreign languages, Anna embarks on an adventure that casually mingles travesty and tragedy. Ms. Vogel aims her bizarre, trendily explicit satire at a range of targets, from medical quackery and gobbledygook to bureaucratic red tape. Her scattershot references extend from King Ludwig of Bavaria to Orson Welles's "Third Man" (including the famous zither theme). The Third Man (Joe Mantello) of this particular excursion cynically advises: "You want to be a
millionaire, sell real estate. You want to be a billionaire, sell hope."
However unrewarding, hope springs eternal for Anna. Whether the same is true for Circle Repertory patrons must be a subjective matter.
In any case, the performance staged by Anne Bogart can scarcely be faulted. Ms. Jones's personable Anna may not know languages, but she proves herself game for any encounter, however improbable. Mr. Thompson manages to avoid the ridiculous even when man-boy Carl is clinging to the soiled white bunny rabbit of his childhood. As the Third Man, Mr. Mantello sprints nimbly through a catalog of characters. If "The Baltimore Waltz" were more substantial, their efforts might be more rewarding. Audience defectio ns at some performances indicate that this is not everyone's dose of fantasy.
Vogel's latest is also being presented this season by the Capital Repertory Company in Albany, N.Y., Baltimore's Center Stage, and Houston's Alley Theatre.