In my last ArtsAmerica blog entry, I wrote about what I consider to be an unfortunate omission from the list of this year’s Tony Award nominees for Best Play: David Auburn’s The Columnist. Now I’d like to call attention to an unfortunate inclusion among the nominees for Best Musical: Nice Work If You Can Get It, which has been accurately described by an esteemed colleague of mine as one of the worst Broadway shows in years.
The latest monstrosity to be foisted upon the public with the blessing of those apparently tasteless individuals who are now in charge of the estates of George and Ira Gershwin, and who earlier this season gave us the abomination that goes by the ridiculous title The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (excuse me while I retch), Nice Work is a whole lot of nonsense about a group of Prohibition-era bootleggers attempting to hide booze in a millionaire’s supposedly empty mansion. (Got that?)
This ersatz Gershwin musical has a bargain-basement book by Joe DiPietro, incorporating some plot elements from Oh, Kay! Great songs from that show and several of the brothers’ others have been shoved into the idiotic script like so many delicious plums in a rancid pudding, almost always in ways that do no honor to the songs. (See below.)
At the center of this mess stands Matthew Broderick, looking bloated, botoxed, and highly uncomfortable throughout the proceedings — especially when he’s required to dance. As he has done in just about every show and film I’ve seen him in over the past 10 years or more, Broderick comes across here as the ultimate nebbish and speaks and sings in a robotic, nasal voice that soon begins to grate. That shtick is well suited to some of the parts he has played, most notably, Leo Bloom in The Producers, but is wildly inappropriate for his role in Nice Work: Jimmy Winter, a fabulously rich playboy who has been married several times and has herds of women swooning over him.
Jimmy’s love/hate interest is one Billie Bendix, a rough-edged Prohibition-era bootlegger involved with some really shady characters. Billie is played by Kelli O’Hara, whose luminous, aristocratic beauty and gorgeous legit soprano make her about as believable in this role as Broderick is in his — i.e., not at all.
As noted above, DiPietro’s book is claptrap, and it does a disservice to nearly all of the Gershwin songs by setting them up so poorly. To cite only two examples, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” here comes off as an annoyingly insipid intrusion; the sweet ballad “Looking for a Boy” is played for laughs (!) in its new context as a “comedy” number for Judy Kaye in the role of a rabid pro-Prohibitionist; and although O’Hara does a beautiful job of singing the lovely, winsome standard “Someone to Watch Over Me,” the effect of the song is ruined because she has been directed to perform it with a gun in her hand. (In the original production, Gertude Lawrence sang the song while cradling a rag doll. Why can’t it be like it was?)
The mistress of this artistic debacle is director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall, whose Broadway career thus far has ranged from the depths of the 2007 production of Grease to the heights of the 2011 production of Anything Goes (still running at the Stephen Sondheim Theater). Nice Work is, to put it kindly, much closer kin to the former than the latter.
There are a few people whose do nice work here, including set designer Derek McLane, costume designer Martin Pakledinaz, lighting designer Peter Kaczorowki, and especially music supervisor/arranger David Chase. Also, Judy Kaye and Michael McGrath (as one of the bootleggers) somehow manage to give skillful comic performances despite the awful book and poor or non-existent direction. Other than these elements, Nice Work If You Can Get It is an abomination that does no credit to its architects or to the Gershwins, both of whom must be rolling over in their graves at this latest blot on their good name.