Marriott's Lincolnshire Theatre
PUTTIN' ON THE RITZ
Drury Lane Dinner Theatre
Despite popular myth, we're not called the "Windy City" for our weather. New York speculators gave us the name around 1893: marveling at the boasts of Chicago developers about the "metropolis of the west," they said that midwestern pitchmen could literally talk up a storm.
And no storm of talk has raged more violently than the one in The Front Page, the hilarious 1928 newspaper comedy by Chicago journalists Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur that is the source for the musical Windy City. Set in the pressroom of the old Criminal Courts Building (still standing at Hubbard and Dearborn), The Front Page is a lurid but still current tale of venal politicians and desperate news hounds who'd sell their mothers for a scoop.
Though the plot seems too fast and furious for a musical, Windy City not only makes room for songs but makes them welcome. Dick Vosburgh's faithful book and witty lyrics and Tony Macaulay's driving score efficiently push the plot from cliff-hanger to crisis, pausing along the way just long enough to deepen two relationships--between Hildy Johnson and his tony fiancee Natalie, and between sad-sack anarchist Earl Williams and Mollie Malloy, the courageous hooker who befriends and defends him.
In 1984 Marriott's Lincolnshire Theatre gave Windy City its U.S. premiere; a decade later, fine-tuned and carrying three new songs, the musical receives a strong, peppy second production, at the hands of director Dyanne Earley. Macaulay's score bubbles with infectious production numbers like the reporters' brassy "Some Combination," but it can also ease into a confessional lament like Hildy's regretful "Water Under the Bridge." And numbers like the reporters' "The Day I Quit This Rag" preserve in notes the sharp-edged raillery of Hecht and MacArthur's dialogue.
Windy City remains as irreverent and offensive as its source. The lazy, cynical, crudely competitive reporters are no one to get nostalgic about--and anyway the breed is hardly extinct. Human suffering is the grist for their mill; if they can't find it, they'll cause it. But Hildy must be played almost innocently, like a kid who loves winning by his own rules. With Natalie, Hildy's like a man who's already married--to his byline and his dreams of a Pulitzer. Robert Michael Baker does both acts smoothly, displaying enough charm and warmth to excuse the moral lapses and make us root for his next scoop. Crusty and deeply devious, Joel Hatch's wily editor is a five-star con artist (his last dirty trick, one of many ingratiating betrayals, brings down the house and the curtain). His merry duet with Hildy "I Can Just Imagine It" is a journalistic feeding frenzy. By contrast Kathryn Jaeck is cool and composed as Natalie, and Robin Kersey-Dickerson squeezes all the passion she can from Mollie's bittersweet love ballad "I Can Talk to You."
If casting is half the battle, director Earley won the war early. Chicago's sharpest character actors compete for laughs here: Larry Yando as the prissy Tribune reporter who fancies himself a misunderstood poet, Dale Morgan as the deliciously corrupt mayor, John LiBrizzi as the astonishingly incompetent sheriff, and Andrew J. Lupp as a befuddled flunky. Most delightful is Guy Adkins as the sweet-faced, timid anarchist killer; when he excuses himself in a squeaky voice because he fell through the ceiling or has to get up early (to be hanged), it's as poignant as it is gut busting.
Thomas M. Ryan's set, dominated by an ingenious catwalk arching over a battered pressroom full of antique phones and typewriters, all but acts out the period; and Diane Ferry Williams's exciting lighting pumps up the numerous chases.
Puttin' On the Ritz, a revue conceived by Sheldon Patinkin and premiered last June by National Jewish Theater to huge acclaim, remains an instant, constant delight in this Drury Lane Dinner Theatre revival. Cleverly remounted by director-choreographer Jim Corti for Drury Lane's arena stage, this Irving Berlin anthology pays tribute to America's most characteristic songwriter in all phases of his long career--ragtime, jitterbug, Charleston, two-step, the waltz, the blues, tap-dance rousers, novelty numbers, patriotic ballads, even a pacifist plea. The 73 songs range from the escapist "Blue Skies" (warmly crooned by Kelly Prybycien) to the tap-dancing title tune. Also included in this production (but not NJT's) are "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade." All have been deftly arranged, both by Kingsley Day in his jazzy, faithful settings and in their order of performance: pursuing themes like Depression consolations, love and the weather, and war fever, they richly comment upon and sometimes contradict one another.
Though I miss the wry wit Frank Farrell displayed in NJT's production, Corti's ensemble--Christopher DeAngelis, Roberta Duchak, Michael Gutrich, Prybycien, Seth Swoboda, and Tammy Ann Mader--whir and hum as efficiently as Broadway clockwork, change costumes on a dime, hoof an accurate inventory of 20th-century dance steps, and hit the mark in every heart-warmer. Rich in musical joy, Puttin' On the Ritz is a show that won't pall no matter how many times you see it.