By MIKE CHAIKEN
The art of the screwball comedy for the most part has been lost.
Screwball comedies, which found their heyday on stage and screen, in Broadway’s golden days and when black and white film ruled the roost, were earmarked by over the top characters, lots of physical humor, hints of romance (but never sex), and plainly outrageous plots. Stage comedies such as “Arsenic and Old Lace” (which became a hit movie in its own right) and films like “Bringing Up Baby” and “The Philadelphia Story” (both with Cary Grant and Connecticut’s own Katherine Hepburn) kept audiences in stitches from the 1930s to 1940s.
And song and dance musicals also have been a lost art since Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers hung up their heels and Busby Berkley finally stepped away from his kaleidoscope choreography. The song and dance musicals were all about fluff and romance. They took place in fantastical worlds where the wars overseas were never mentioned and the poverty on the street was a non-issue. There were no attempts in tje films of Fred and Ginger of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor to tackle serious topics like an “Evita” or “Les Miserables” did.
Now I have to confess. I love the old screwball comedies. And I love song and dance musicals… especially the ones with Fred and Ginger.
I also love the music of the Great American Songbook, which includes the compositions of Cole Porter, and George and Ira Gershwin.
So when the stage musical, “Nice Work If You Can Get It” (which showcases the music of the Gershwins by grafting it onto an entirely new screwy stage show) came to the Bushnell, I was pretty much predisposed to have a good time.
As a caveat, however, if they failed to live up to the old classics, I knew I would be doubly disappointed.
But I’m happy to say that the debut national road tour of “Nice Work If You Can Get It” really tickled my fancy.
The direction by Kathleen Marshall got things just perfect. From the point of view for a screwball comedy, the characters had the right amount of controlled exaggeration. Facial expressions are key in screwball comedy. Every thought in a character’s head needs to be telegraphed via face. And every actor on stage seemed to have read—and passed– “Rubbery Face 101.”
The king of the rubbery face, and the primary comedy relief for the show, was Reed Campbell, who played Cookie—the bootlegger/ butler. Some of the biggest laughs of the evening were due to his moments on stage. He and his fellow bootlegger Aaron Fried played the same kind of role the Marx Brothers and Abbott and Costello played in the old song and dance musicals, offering up the comic moments among the romantic interludes to grab the audience’s attention.
But the comedy wasn’t all about zingers. Alex Enterline as the sometimes dense and clueless hero Jimmy Winter, also offered up some great laughs. His character inadvertently time and time again revealed his aristocratic ineptitude. And Jimmy’s love interest Mariah MacFarlane, as Billie Bendix, also offered up some great laughs—most notably when she worked to use her creaky “womanly charms” to distract Jimmy.
Marshall also perfectly directed the comic timing on stage. Screwball comedy is all about timing if the jokes are to work. Marshall not only got the performers in sync, but the band (directed by Charlie Reuter) served the same role as a drum rimshot at a burlesque show. The music punctuated the laughs offered on stage.
The choreography by Marshall also was key to the success of the show. The dance ensemble (which includes Bristol’s own Kevin Raponey) performed fabulously, enacting routines that harkened back to the old song and dance musicals. But, the choreography clearly was shaped for 2015 audiences.
The music by Gershwin, although sometimes shoehorned into the plot, was gorgeous. And the performers again did the Gershwin tunes proud. I loved in particular the effortless tenor of Enterline
One of the greatest moments on stage was between Campbell and Stephanie Harter Gilmore (Duchess Estonia Dulworth) as they did a breathless comical mash-up of the Gershwins’ “By Strauss” and “Sweet and Lowdown.”
There were just so many things to like about “Nice Work If You Can Get it.” It definitely lived up to my expectations of screwball comedies and song and dance musicals. And it proved the art form doesn’t have to be relegated to the museum. If done right, it can still be a vibrant genre in the theater.
“Nice Work If You Can Get It” continues through Sunday at The Bushnell, 166 Capitol Ave., Hartford. Get your tickets at the box office or by going online at Bushnell.org.
So if you can get out of the house, brave the cold, it’s more than worth.
I give “Nice Work If You Can Get it” four out of four stars.