Ogunquit's "Nice Work If You Can Get It": More than "Oh, Kay!"

The Cast of "Nice Work If You Can Get It"

The current Ogunquit Playhouse production of “Nice Work If You Can Get It” is nice work indeed. It's a new old show with Music by George Gershwin and Lyrics by Ira Gershwin, with a Book by Joe Pietro based on material by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse (in fact, largely but loosely based on “Oh, Kay!”). First presented by Goodspeed Musicals in 2001 (as “They All Laughed”), it opened on Broadway in 2012 with its new title, was nominated for ten Tony Awards and won two for supporting performances. Though it had a respectable run of almost 500 performances, it deserved better, at least so it would seem based on this wild and wacky, unexpectedly charming show. The New York version reportedly had a major flaw in that one of its stars was not a trained dancer, and this is without a doubt first and foremost a dancing show. Fortunately for audiences at Ogunquit Playhouse, Director Larry Raben and Choreographer Peggy Hickey (easily the star of this production) have assembled a cast of extraordinary dancers, who can also sing and act. It's a tribute to the expertise of the company that each of five couples in the ensemble gets their own curtain call.

The story is intentionally silly in the same vein as the 1920's musicals that it's engagingly spoofing. It seems Jimmy Winter (Joey Sorge, winningly channeling Dick Powell) is engaged to Eileen Evergreen (the limber Breighanna Minnema), daughter of Senator Max Evergreen (well played by Steve Brady). But while drunk, Jimmy meets bootlegger Billie Bendix (Amanda Lea LaVergne, a real find) who schemes to hide her hooch in his ample cellar. At the mansion of Estonia Dulworth, Duchess of Woodford (the hilarious Sally Struthers), he meets Cookie McGee (James Beaman, who heists just about every scene he's in), Jeannie Muldoon (the very talented Elyse Collier), Chief Berry (the handsome Valton Jackson) and Duke Mahoney (the very funny Aaron Fried). In a true Deus ex machina touch worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan, Jimmy finally encounters his mother, Millicent Winter (the true trouper Brenda Vaccaro, subbing for an ailing Valerie Harper), whose revelations tie up more than a few loose ends.

The show gives a whole new dimension to the term “jukebox musical”; the score is an assembled one, utilizing songs lifted from films (the title song, first heard in “Damsel in Distress”; “Let's Call the Whole Thing Off” and “They All Laughed”, both from “Shall We Dance?”) as well as previous Gershwin musicals (such as “Someone to Watch over Me” from “Oh Kay!”; “S'Wonderful” from “Funny Face”; “Fascinatin' Rhythm” from “Lady Be Good”; “I've Got a Crush on You”, which the Gershwins themselves used twice, in both “Treasure Girl” and “Strike Up the Band”; and “But Not For Me”, heard in the Gershwin show “Girl Crazy” in 1930 and placed in the score of 1992's “Crazy for You”). Lovely songs all, but of course not originally intended for use in the current musical's scenes, thus hardly integral to the story as such. When one thinks of how Broadway musical teams may spend five to ten years laboring over what musical numbers to include and where, it should come as no surprise that the songs in this show don't propel the action or the arc of the story. Not to worry, as the plot, in true 1920's fashion, doesn't much matter. What does matter is that the whole cast has both the art and the craft to deliver with the deadest-pan faces not just the corny jokes but the gorgeous trunk songs in this patchwork score.

As noted above, it's a tribute to the Direction by Larry Raben and Choreography by Peggy Hickey (as well as the Musical Direction by Charlie Reuter) that this production succeeds so impressively The other technical elements are quite astonishing, from the ingeniously complicated Scenic Design by Shoko Kambara, to the lovely Costume Design by Martin Pakledinaz, to the extremely intricate Lighting Design by Richard Latta to the Sound Design by Kevin Heard (though a bit heavy in the woofer department at first, until a better balance was reached).

But as winning as the creative team's efforts are, the real delight is in the cast's performances, notably the expertise of Struthers and Vaccaro (who had previously starred together in a Broadway revival of “The Odd Couple”) and the excellent farceuse work by the powerfully voiced Lavergne. One scene in particular, involving Struthers and a chandelier (not to be revealed here), is just about the funniest visual in theatrical memory, almost literally side-splitting, and alone would be sufficient reason to see this beguiling show. One's expectations (given the show's prior history) were modest, yet this one is a keeper, and way more than merely “Oh, Kay!”.

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