by David Finkle
What’s happening at City Center this weekend is what frequently happens when the Encores! series is in swing: The most entrancing musical number to be seen anywhere in Manhattan is right there on the City Center stage.
This frame it’s the “Fascinating Rhythm” routine — though there’s nothing routine about it — that comes in the first act of the only-week-end-long Lady Be Good revival, the first for the George Gershwin-Ira Gershwin-Guy Bolton-Fred Thompson tuner since the initial production closed on September 12, 1925. That’s nearly 90 years ago, don’t you know?.
What makes this showstopper stop the show as it so gloriously does? To begin, it starts with a solo song and dance by Tommy Tune. You read that right. Tommy Tune has been enticed back to the boards, and whoever came up with that idea deserves a big fat bonus.
Once the man with stilts for legs completes his one-manning it, he’s joined by ten tappers who help him wheel about to Randy Skinner’s swanky choreography. And everybody around this musical-mad town knows that if you want tops in taps, Skinner’s the guy. The mere idea of Tune and Skinner swapping notions makes a reviewer’s heart pound to its own fascinating rhythm.
Having worn a red suit for his first number, Tune returns in act two sporting a blue suit with a straw hat atop which is affixed a blue bird. This time he has the charm-them-silly task to himself as he sings “Little Jazz Bird” and, when it’s time to dance, does boneless things with his arms and legs. This performance is right up there with his first-act magic.
For the somewhat isolated appearances Tune is addressed by the characters as The Professor and is, apparently, a version of the 1924 production’s Jeff, played by Cliff Edwards. Although Jeff appeared in the “Fascinating Rhythm” to-do then, too, he was there along with Dick Trevor and Susie Trevor, who were played by, respectively, Fred Astaire and Adele Astaire.
This redistribution of assignments gives you some inkling of the liberties Jack Viertel, credited in the program for “concert adaptation,” took with this Lady Be Good dusting-off. After all, the Gershwins, Bolton and Thompson tailored the musical for the Astaires, and the Astaires weren’t going to forfeit “Fascinating Rhythm.” If you were they, listening to George Gershwin playing the song he and brother Ira wrote for them, would you allow someone else to get his or her mitts on it?
Tailored to the popular sister-brother team (she got the more glowing notices in their early days), Lady Be Good is about brother Dick (Danny Gardner, until last week in Everybody Gets Cake!) and sister Susie (Patti Murin) who, though having money behind them at one point, are evicted as the curtain rises and have to think of a way to make money fast.
So yes, Lady Be Good is about what so many musicals were about then: the rich going to parties in hopes of finding true love. (Say, isn’t that Jay Gatsy over there?) Full of charming inanities, the Bolton-Thomson libretto sends the sibs to three rousing get-togethers where Dick proposes to loud Josephine Vanderwater (Jennifer Laura Thompson) and thereby alienates real love Shirley Vernon (Erin Mackey), while Susie falls for penniless scion Jack Robinson (Colin Donnell) and also masquerades as Mexican spitfire Juanita in a scheme cooked up by self-proclaimed shyster lawyer J. Watterson Watkins (Douglas Sills).
That’s enough of what anyone needs to know–maybe more than enough–about the cross-purpose garden party-chic hotel-yacht club conflicts. The real aim during the days of flappers flapping and playboys, as the script puts it, “born with a silver flask on [their] hip,” was to give top-notch entertainers the opportunity for chanting and terping to songs by top-notch tunesmiths.
Were any songwriters top-notchier than George and Ira? “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Little Jazz Bird” and the title tune are the ones still familiar now, but the rest of the score is delightful as well–not overlooking that it gets around to the Mexican-esque “Senorita Juanita” and the Charleston-esque “I’d Rather Charleston” (lyrics by Desmond Carter).
Rob Fisher conducts a 30-piece(!) orchestra, featuring Chris Fenwick and Greg Anthony playing at twin pianos with all their combined might. Thanks to Fisher, George Gershwin’s melodies mostly sound fine, although from time to time the Gershwin edge doesn’t fully register.
By the way “Lady Be Good” is reprised often with slightly different words. Has any lyricist other than the playful Ira rhymed “good” with “widowhood.” (Psst! The “good”/”widowhood” rhyme isn’t included in Robert Kimball’s Complete Lyrics of Ira Gershwin, but let’s give Viertel and company the benefit of the doubt.)
Maybe musicals have changed since the Jazz Age, but certainly including the little lauded today Lady Be Good in this season–where subscribers are cherished every season–is a bow to what the Encores! mission should be: reminding us of tradition without immediate attention paid to contemporary marquee value.
Without question director Mark Brokaw and choreographer Skinner have brought this gem back with spirited honor. And while it would be rabidly unfair to ask Gardner and Murin to be Astaire and Astaire (or what we think they must have been like in 1924), this week’s interpreters have their own refreshing way with singing and dancing–in Gardner’s case, dancing less than his predecessor must have.
Besides Tune–charismatic even as he does something as throwaway as lean against the proscenium–it’s Sills who does the most scene purloining. Mackey and Donnell (reunited from the recent Anything Goes) hold up their end as the prospective Trevor kids’ lovers. All others–Kirsten Wyatt as a soubrette and Jeff Hiller as an overgrown juvenile, foremost among them–are as polished as can be and look soigné in the mostly black-and-white clothes that costume consultant Michael has selected.
Lady Be Good ran 330 performances then and, while rewarding fare at the time, couldn’t have impressed many as the be-all-and-end-all. The dialogue and plot turns probably prompted some cynical eye-rolling. They definitely do now. Nonetheless, it’s well worth an enthusiastic go-see.