Director/choreographer Donna Feore’s lively, passionate, cornball-filled (lines: “I’m beside myself” never funnier; physical: think The Three Stooges Meet Monty Python) production of this Gershwin songbook where—like Whose Line Is it Anyway?—the points (in this case plot points) don’t matter, is long on energy and short on razor-sharp precision. But for those who love well-known tunes from the past (“Embraceable You” through “I Got Rhythm” to “Nice Work if You Can Get it”) and an invitation to the silly side of theatre (bookended as this show is during opening week between the madness of King Lear and the treacherous duplicity of King John—cross-reference below) this escape from reality is bound to entertain.
What absolutely ironical fun that—after some of the collectively messiest tap dancing yet seen/heard in Stratford coupled with first night pitch jitters by chorus and leads alike—it took Michael McLennan’s acoustic—no reinforcement required—stand-up bass artistry to light the fire under this fascinatin’ ensemble, delivering the first (“Slap that Bass”) of just two vrai showstoppers (the other, “Stiff Upper Lip” deservedly brought the house down midway through Act II), sending the Festival Theatre into a riotous frenzy when everything clicked in an unforgettable way. Not surprisingly, both numbers left the tap shoes in the wings, allowing the company to strut their stuff in far more suitable footwear for everyone’s skill sets—which are considerable when used to best advantage—rather than highlight the decided lack of unanimity as the sound of every tap bounces off the well-treated thrust stage.
As to the leads, Natalie Daradich is a visual delight playing Polly Baker. She can dance up a storm and has a dramatic range of delivery that covers the emotional spectrum and then some. But when the music calms down into the realm of poignant ballads (“Someone to Watch Over Me”), a somewhat slower vibrato and much more support, far less push to the top are all that’s required to reach triple-threat status. Leading man Josh Franklin has a similar problem as banker-wannabe-dancer Bobby Child in his excursions to the melodic stratosphere (like ALL CAPS in print, the penchant for so many singers these days to squeeze rather than release too often gives their songs an edge that the composers never imagined: Cleo Laine and Ella Fitzgerald are but two shining examples of grate-free, ever-intense art) but everything else is Broadway Grade A quality.
Tom Rooney gives a great turn to anything-goes (on stage and off) producer Bela Zangler; while too-long-by-half, his pas de peach with lookalike, alter ego Child has some of the funniest moments in the production. Still, less is more.
Robin Hutton is appropriately overbearing and opportunistic as required playing Child’s alleged intended, Irene Roth, and delivers the most consistent singing of the lot (“Naughty Baby” indeed). Monique Lund and Shawn Wright are spot-on ridiculous as the travel hounds, Patricia and Eugene Fodor. Steve Ross harvests several yuks as Moose while Shane Carty sets just the right tone as “bad guy” Lank Hawkins.
Conductor Shelley Hanson does her level best keeping both the orchestra and the voices in sync. The follies girls slip the leash a few times in the early going (“I Can’t Be Bothered Now”); the cowboys fare much better anchored by Stephen Cota and featuring the balletic athleticism of Jason Sermonia who went for and reached excitement gold in the non-tap extravaganzas. Theirs is the kind of talent so very much needed at the Shaw Festival for its music theatre excursions (cross-reference below).
The opening night crowd, once the bass was most assuredly laid down, realized most certainly “Tonight’s the Night” and that “Things Are Looking Up!” JWR