Next to the jukebox musical, the Broadway genre getting and usually deserving the least amount of respect is that woebegon Frankenstein that starts life on the big screen only to have its parts jumbled and reassembled for the stage. The failure-to-success ratio of such attempts should keep any sane stage director as far from a movie house as humanly possible.
We’re all fortunate that Casey Nicholaw has ignored any such warnings, and has instead assembled a glorious new Some Like It Hot, a tap-dancing, razzle-dazzling embrace of everything to love about classic American musical theater, Golden Age Hollywood and Broadway talent at the top of their games, all of it crafted with a 21st Century wisdom that knows what’s worth clutching from the past and what insists on a refresh. Some Like It Hot is a delight from start to finish.
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Nicholaw both choreographs and directs and seems to be having the time of his life – or at least since the similarly irresistible The Prom some years back – doing both. With a new book by Matthew López (The Inheritance) and Amber Ruffin (The Amber Ruffin Show) that sticks close to the main plot of the classic 1959 Billy Wilder film comedy, the stage musical shimmers with new energy and perspective – López is a gay man and Latino (the first to have a play win the top Tony) and Ruffin is a Black woman and pioneering force in the world of late-night comedy writing, and they can’t help but bring that mid-century modern comedy into a brand-new not quite mid-century century.
You know the plot: Chicago, 1930s, Prohibition, gangsters, fast-talkers always on the take and two musician buddies down on their luck. They would be sax player Joe (Christian Borle) and Jerry on upright bass (J. Harrisonn Ghee), a tap-dancing duo who not only grew up together but will tell one and all that they are indeed brothers despite the insurmountable fact that Joe is white and Jerry is Black. Wait, did I say insurmountable? Nothing in the magical world of this musical is every entirely insurmountable, so surmount they do.
JOE: You and me, we’re gonna walk right into the Cheetah Club and demand a job.
JERRY: The Cheetah Club?! Everyone knows they pride themselves on their all-white band.
JOE: Don’t be ridiculous, a band can’t sound white
To which Jerry responds, deadpan, weary and wise, “Yes, it can.”
There’s two bits of magic going on here – Ghee can prompt a belly laugh from his reading of that hard-learned line, and Some Like It Hot can work its wonders to get Joe and Jerry right where they need to be, playing in a club where they shouldn’t be. There, they’ll witness a mob boss gun down three snitches, and the road show begins.
Forced to go into their own self-devised witness protection program, Jerry and Joe don dresses and join an all-female jazz band under the stern but loving conductorship of Sweet Sue (the scene-stealing NaTasha Yvette Williams). They hop the tour train to California and escape the Chicago mob. Joe becomes Josephine and Jerry, whom the domineering Joe decides will be Geraldine, instead chooses…Daphne, a name and a big, happy hint at what’s to come for this kind-hearted, lost man trying to find his truth.
In grand Shakespearean manner, the false identifies lead to no end of confusions and ruses and revelations. Josephine falls head over very high heels for Sugan Cane (the incandescent Adrianna Hicks, late of Six, and here seeming less Marilyn Monroe than Josephine Baker, all the better). Sugar, who has a secret or two of her own, is devoted to her new bestie Josephine, but really has the hots for the traveling Viennese scriptwriter Kiplinger Von Der Plotz. Does it really need pointing out that Kip is Joe who is Josephine? (The movie’s Cary Grant impersonation used by Tony Curtis, by the way, is AWOL, replaced by cartoon Teutonic that works just fine).
Daphne, meanwhile is being gently hounded by San Diego resort magnate Osgood Fielding III (Kevin Del Aguila)- yes, they’ve all made it to the sunny, Art Deco Eden of California – as have the mobsters, but more about them later – and while Daphne resists the seemingly goofy Osgood at first, closer examination and sweet heart-to-hearts find the two drifting together.
Indeed, by the middle of the second act Daphne will be handed one of the musical’s outstanding numbers: With “You Coulda Knocked Me Over With A Feature” Ghee, as Daphne, lays full claim to this musical’s “I Am What I Am” moment. Here, and elsewhere, Some Like It Hot accomplishes what neither Broadway’s updated Tootsie nor its Mrs. Doubtfire could: It convincingly turns the theatrical trope of a man dressing as a woman into something about pride and honesty. Indeed, Daphne’s revelation, by contrast, shows up Joe’s Josephine disguise as the fraud it is.
No more spoilers from here on in, except to note that there will be no other big divergences from the movie, unless you want to count a stupendous final-act resolution that needs no deus ex machina when tap shoes, quick-changes and all the slammed doors a farce could ever want.
Of course, we’ve been fully pumped for this payoff by two+ hours of a truly fine score courtesy of those musical wizards Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who have immersed themselves in the 20th Century’s greatest mid-century musical genres, from jump blues, jazz vamps, Big Band swing, sultry torch, lonesome 53rd Street blues, MGM scores and the East Coast art song, all filtered through a modern sensibility that knows what it likes and what it wants to do.
And among the things it likes is Cole Porter. Consider this lyric from the title song, and try not to hum “Always True To You In My Fashion.”
NOW, ON A SULTRY SUMMER DAY
SOME CONSUMMATE WITH CONSOMMÉ
YES, AS A RULE IT KEEPS THINGS COOL AS MOUNTAIN AIR
AND THOUGH THE POSTMAN MIGHT RING TWICE
SOME LIKE THE MAN WHO BRINGS THE ICE
HE COMETH WITH HIS BLOCK TO STOCK MY FRIGIDAIRE
TO WARM THE COCKLES OF THEIR HEART
SOME LIKE A FRESH YOUNG APPLE TART
BUT IN A STORM JUST BEING WARM WILL NEVER DO
BUT IF YOU’VE A YEN FOR EGG FOO YUNG
MINE’S GUARANTEED TO BURN YOUR TONGUE
SOME LIKE IT HOT
AND HOT IS WHAT I GOT FOR YOU
Whether performing the songs in ensemble or solo – each of the principal performers gets at least one moment in the spotlight, and none disappoint, especially the powerhouse Hicks.
Playing out on one of the most gorgeously lit and designed sets currently on Broadway, with its Deco Hotel columns and draping folds lit in purples and blues and reds that scream night life when it counted (Scott Pask did the sets, Natasha Katz the lights, Gregg Barnes the costumes perfect to the last sequin and Brian Ronan the sound system that misses neither a whispered sweet nothing or the brassiest horn blast).
Nor does the cast miss a beat, musical or comic. Borle is, as any theatergoer who’s been paying attention these many years, a treasure, while the relative newcomer Ghee is so simpatico you’d think they’d been song-and-dancing together since before vaudeville died. There’s not a misfire in the entire principal cast, and even the secondary players leave impressions: Note Angie Schworer, so good in Nicholaw’s The Prom, here taking the smaller role of Sweet Sue’s assistant Millie, and making every single line and bit of Eve Arden business a stand-out. Or Casey Garvin, a #2 mob goon who seems to let the ghost of Damon Runyon guide his every expression.
Nicholaw’s choreography, like the score, borrows from here and there, now and then – mostly then – without seeming like pastiche or rip-off. You’ll see all the pre-War dance crazes you want, and they’ll look as fresh as if they’d never been done before, as if they’d been waiting all this time for Some Like It Hot.
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