What could be nicer than a new musical comedy based on a mélange of Gershwin songs? Though set in 1927 Prohibition-era New York, Musical Theatre West’s (MTW) raucous production of Nice Work If You Can Get It, at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center through April 22, is anything but old-fashioned, fueled by forbidden booze, risqué dance numbers, fabulous tunes and two very charming leads.
Written by Joe DiPietro, inspired by the writings of Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, Nice Work premiered on Broadway in 2012 and has been nominated for 10 Tony Awards since. With 10 actors plus an ensemble of 12 dancers, MTW’s production, tightly directed by Larry Raben and with music direction by Dennis Castellano, packs a riotous punch.
Talented Eric Sciotto anchors the show with his pitch-perfect, enthusiastic portrayal of rich society playboy Jimmy, who soon falls head-over-heels for Kelley Dorney’s tomboyish Billie, a female bootlegger. Nevermind that Jimmy is engaged and may still be married to his third wife, or that Billie and her gang are secretly stashing gin at Jimmy’s Long Island mansion, their love tap-dances its way through DiPietro’s over-the-top story.
With “Delishious” George and Ira Gershwin melodies like “’S Wonderful” and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” woven throughout the ensuing comedy, there is plenty of flapper-era song and dance to keep us enthralled, especially as the numbers are thoroughly modern, with skimpier costumes and bolder, catchier choreography (by Peggy Hickey) than may have been seemly in 1927. (There is also quite a bit of semi-innocent disrobing throughout and a gloriously bubble-filled bathing sequence.)
Each of the supporting characters adds a potent pinch of quirky comedy to the mix. Of Billie’s bootlegging gang, Jason Graae brings sheer comic genius to his role as Cookie McGee, who pretends to be the mansion’s butler to protect the gang’s hidden contraband. And strongman Duke (Matt Merchant) is more confused than usual when pursued by chorus girl Jeannie Muldoon (Maryella Maloney), who thinks he is a real English duke.
Jimmy’s fiancée, Eileen Evergreen, is played at full tilt by Melina Kalomas, who manages to talk and enact Eileen’s kooky modern dance interpretations at the same time. And Kathy Fitzgerald is unrestrainedly hilarious as Jimmy’s aunt, the authoritative Duchess Estonia Dulworth, who is zealously behind the dry movement, until, of course, she unknowingly imbibes the illegal stuff during a dizzying dining sequence and ends up swinging from a chandelier, among other hysterically uncharacteristic behaviors.
Though a couple of the numbers may seem a bit discordant with our times, such as when Jeannie implores to Duke, “Treat Me Rough,” they are balanced by romantic sweetness in songs like “Blah Blah Blah” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Nice Work If You Can Get It is thus a riveting blend of engaging Gershwin scores; high-energy comedy, singing and dancing; a delightfully convoluted plot; and spot-on acting. And there’s no work required on your part to enjoy it all.
Musical Theatre West’s Nice Work If You Can Get It continues at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 E. Atherton Street, through April 22, with performances Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm & 8pm, Sundays at 1pm & 6pm (except April 22), and Thursday April 19 at 8pm. Tickets are $20 to $92. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 856-1999 x4 or visit musical.org.