CRAZY FOR YOU
George Gershwin was famous for playing songs from his forthcoming musicals at parties--so much so, George S. Kaufman once cracked, "that the first night audience [at a new show] thinks it's at a revival." Crazy for You, playing in an eye-popping, tap-happy touring production at the Auditorium, is both a new show and a revival: premiered on Broadway in 1992 under the direction of Mike Ockrent, it's a broad reworking of the 1930 Broadway hit Girl Crazy, which Gershwin wrote with his lyricist brother Ira and playwrights Guy Bolton and John McGowan (capping a string of lightweight comedies by the Gershwins before they turned to more serious fare like the satiric Of Thee I Sing and the tragic Porgy and Bess). Ken Ludwig, whose Lend Me a Tenor paid tribute to the screwball comedies of the 1920s and '30s, concocted a new script in a style that was corny and old-fashioned even in the days of Girl Crazy, a trifle about a New York playboy-banker who's sent to a Wild West mining town to foreclose on an old theater and decides to revive the place instead, importing a follies chorus to stage a musical extravaganza and in the meantime wooing the theater owner's frisky daughter. But what the script really does is frame 18 great Gershwin tunes--melodically graceful, whimsically romantic, buoyantly syncopated, in short, bursting with freshness and intelligence--and a series of fabulous dance numbers, most featuring a dynamic leading man cum clown named James Brennan.
From his first big tap number, barely five minutes into the show (declaring "I Can't Be Bothered Now" to a line of showgirls who magically pop out of his limousine), through the vaudevillian tumbles, pratfalls, and pantomimes that punctuate the show's middle portion, and on to the glamorous Ziegfeldian climax that brings him into the arms of his lady love, Brennan dances. He dances even when he's not dancing. Small and cocky, with an unaffectedly masculine insouciance and a body that seems able to do just about anything, he recalls with equal grace and zest the breezy sexuality of Gene Kelly, the knockabout eccentricity of Ray Bolger, the antic feyness of Danny Kaye, even the sublime loopiness of Charlie Chaplin. It's not just the man's physical prowess that impresses--it's the mercurial nature of his gift, so in tune with Gershwin's masterful music.
And Crazy for You has plenty of that. Some of it is famous: "Embraceable You" and "But Not for Me," introduced in Girl Crazy by Ginger Rogers; "I Got Rhythm," which made a star of Ethel Merman in the same show; "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Slap That Bass," and "They Can't Take That Away From Me," drawn from other sources. Other numbers are lesser-known novelties, including the act-two opener "The Real American Folk Song (Is a Rag)," George and Ira's first professional collaboration, written in 1918 when they were in their very early 20s. All of them are heard in lustrous, Auditorium-filling orchestrations (by William D. Brohn and Peter Howard, played with full-bodied, piano-propelled power under Paul Gemignani's musical direction) that occasionally echo yet more Gershwin: "Stairway to Paradise," "Rhapsody in Blue," the Piano Concerto in F.
With a big supporting cast highlighted by the indefatigable Karen Ziemba as the object of Brennan's affection (the sense of easygoing friendship complicated by sex that he and she project nicely recalls Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in Singin' in the Rain) and Kay McClelland and Christopher Coucill as the vulgar secondary couple, Crazy for You is a spectacular show--but this is spectacle with intelligence thanks to Susan Stroman's choreography, which grounds its inventive patterns in the psychology of the characters. Enhancing the rich sense of period are Robin Wagner's sets (including a Manhattan street dotted with neon signs proclaiming the wonders of Planters Peanuts and the Horn and Hardart automat, as well as a gorgeous art deco staircase straight out of a Busby Berkeley movie for the finale) and William Ivey Long's costumes.
Crazy for You is a wonderful show--and the last chance to hear some really good music in the Auditorium for some time to come, I suspect: next up after it closes November 21 is Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera.
Down the street from Crazy for You is another Broadway road show, Breaking Legs. Tom Dulack's comedy, about a tweedy New England WASP playwright who gets tangled up with a clan of minor mafiosi, is rampant with Italian American stereotypes--the earthy broad who all but rapes the demure WASP at the dinner table, the pinky-ring-wearing tough guys who spool pasta as they casually discuss marriage, murder, and other family business. (Maybe it was the presence of an old-school Chicago alderman next to me on opening night, but I kept thinking of Counsellors Row.)
The problem with these stereotypes is not political but aesthetic: they're old hat. When the play was done at Candlelight's Forum Theatre in 1991, director William Pullinsi shrewdly coached the cast to play against the script's exaggerations; the result was a cute, low-key comedy that occasionally erupted into broad farce. In this production, director John Tillinger tries to milk the play for more laughs than it's worth.
Boasting the star power of Danny Aiello in the lead role of gangster Mike Fransisco and such TV celebrities as Gary Sandy, Karen Valentine, Larry Storch, and the once-fine actor Harry Guardino, Tillinger's staging plays up the wop-versus-WASP comedy (such as it is) to the point where what should be a delicate, light pasta is beaten to a pulp by heavy hunks of ham. Aiello has genuine vitality onstage but offers no subtlety in his tough-talking, heavily gesticulating characterization; it's almost as if he considers the play to be so bad that he doesn't want anyone to think he actually believes in what he's doing. Valentine is shrill, not sexy, as the aging restaurateur who convinces her father to invest in her inamorato's play in order to bind him to the family; as the playwright, Sandy is glibly charming but fails to register the character's growing confidence (the closest thing to dramatic tension the show's got).
Only Vince Viverito--a fine Chicago actor who plays Aiello's tight-lipped lieutenant (and who played Aiello's role in the Pullinsi production)--demonstrates the real humor that comes from real characterization, not just mannerisms.