At OU, play’s cast does ‘Nice Work’
NORMAN — In 2012, Joe DiPietro opened “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” an adaptation of a 1926 musical with songs by the Gershwin boys and a story adapted from a French farce by Guy Bolton and P.G.Wodehouse. DiPietro added more Gershwin songs and instrumental elements and re-framed the story for contemporary audiences. The result is on stage at the University of Oklahoma, and it’s delightful fun.
Set in New York City in 1927 — the heart of Prohibition — the show features a bootlegger who falls for a rich boy; in the course of the evening, she effectively rescues him from his life of dissipation and gets promoted up the chain of command in the bootlegging empire. Along the way there are showgirls, prohibitionists, vain performers, slow-witted policemen, pompous judges, smugglers posing as servants, and a sweet and modern love story.
It is still, at heart, a French farce. People are discovered in all the wrong places at all the wrong times who nonetheless are just right for each other. Predictably and charmingly, everyone eventually is paired off — after much singing and dancing about fun and heartbreak.
Director Lyn Cramer’s stylish production makes winking references to the whole pantheon of Gershwin films and plays from the 1930s and 1940s, including several Astaire/Rogers and Garland/Rooney films. Don’t worry — the show is great fun even with no knowledge of the period.
Jokes are predictable, and situations are telegraphed three scenes away, but they still are very funny. This is because of Cramer’s thoughtful direction and some sharp comic timing.
Thomas Cromer was excellent in the role of weak willed and overly wealthy Jimmy Winter. Cromer has an unusual task: be a leading man who does not lead and cannot be overly manly — but never let him be a wimp. Cromer rises to the occasion with delicate skill; his delivery conveys the precise level of relief or confidence that Jimmy is experiencing — and it’s either funny or moving or both. Cromer also sings beautifully; his wooing of the attractive bootlegger is both believable and affecting.
Tatum Ludlum was a strong and effective Billie Bendix; as the leader of the trio trying to hide 400 cases of gin from the police, she was tough without being hard and feminine without being soft. Ludlum delivered a decisive and appealing Billie, and she sang the anthems of the show with strength and passion.
Gordie Beingessner as Cookie and Patrick Nowak as Duke were the other two legs of Billie’s trio, both played with great comic style. Olivia Reid played Eileen Evergreen, Jimmy’s self-adoring fiancee, with just enough warmth to be likeable and relatable, even as one of the main antagonists.
Among the other principals, John Tupy played the police officer, Chief Berry, with a pastoral sincerity that made the “straight man” role loveable, and Katja Yanko played Jimmy’s mother, a literal dea ex machina, with sauce and bounce.
Ashley Mandanas as Eileen’s aunt, the axe-wielding Duchess Estonia Dulworth, almost walked away with the show. Mandanas lent a maturity and gravitas to a character whose “dry” facade cracks to reveal an endearingly flawed human being. En route, the Duchess flies off in some unexpected directions, and Mandanas performs the part with acrobatic skill. Her performance alone would be worth the price of admission.
Costumes, sets, lighting and sound are beautiful, and the orchestra is conducted by guest conductor and music director Jerry Steichen, an Oklahoma native who is an internationally respected conductor. His presence in the pit ensures some very fine performances of some of the greatest music written for the American theater.
University of Oklahoma musical theater students Tatum Ludlam, as Billie Bendix, and Thomas Cromer, as Jimmy Winter, rehearse for the musical comedy “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”