Labor Camp:Nice Work’s ‘Cornball Cliches’ Confuse Cast

Early years of Gershwin songbook fall uncategorically out of place in prohibition throwback

nice work1 e1335314424816 Labor Camp:Nice Works Cornball Cliches Confuse Cast

O'Hara and Broderick in Nice Work If You Can Get It.

With nothing on its tiny mind but pulchritude and parody, Nice Work If You Can Get It, a dumping ground of cornball clichés woodenly directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall with tinned arrangements of early tunes by George and Ira Gershwin, has landed on Broadway at the Imperial with a mechanical thud. Except for one or two exceptions, it is so vulgar, boring and stupid that it will probably be a hit.

The stars are Matthew Broderick, who sings weakly, can’t dance and is 20 pounds overweight, and Kelli O’Hara, who does everything musical with welcome panache but ends up wasted in a role so dumb it would have been rejected by Martha Raye. In a book by Joe DiPietro, milked dry from old threadbare material by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, he plays a chunky millionaire playboy named Jimmy Winter who is on the verge of his fourth marriage. She plays a tough bootlegger named Billie Bendix who thinks love is for suckers. Stealing his wallet while he’s throwing up outside a waterfront speakeasy, Billie leads her gang of crooks—Duke Mahoney (Chris Sullivan) and Cookie McGee (Michael McGrath)—to Jimmy’s 47-room estate on Long Island, where they stash their cases of illegal Prohibition hooch in the cellar. When Jimmy and his birdbrain bride, Eileen Evergreen (Jennifer Laura Thompson), arrive accompanied by her pompous, porcine, teetotaling mother and enemy of demon rum, the Duchess Estonia Dulworth (a hilarious Judy Kaye, playing every cliché like a cross between Margaret Dumont and Florence Foster Jenkins), the bootleggers pretend to be the servants. Cookie, posing as a butler everyone calls Biscuit, falls for the bride. Billie, pretending to be an honor student named Gertrude who is working her way through Harvard, fakes a lot of feminine wiles to keep Jimmy out of the cellar and falls for him against her will like a ton of discarded punch lines. A blonde tomato named Jeannie Muldoon mistakes the third bootlegger, an idiot named Duke who fakes it as a cook, as a real duke and promises to marry him if he makes her the Queen of England. I’m not missing the point, which is bargain-basement jabberwocky—I just reject it.

This sleepwalking sludge is loosely strung together—so loosely it rattles—by familiar songs from the Gershwin songbook inserted without rhyme or reason. It drags on and on for two and a half hours with lame jokes about Democrats and Republicans, a phalanx of singing FBI agents who look more like gangsters in pin-stripe suits, a cop who thinks Jimmy and Billie, who is posing as a Cockney maid, are the newlyweds, and the real bride’s father, a stuffy U.S. senator who wants Jimmy arrested for bigamy. Kathleen Marshall literally knocks herself out pouring on the gimmicks. The chorus keeps time with knives and forks on “Do Do Do,” but haven’t we seen it all before? It’s all a lot of wasted, embarrassing energy, with contrived segues leading into one Gershwin song after another without making a valid comical point or commenting on the action. No matter. The audience seems to enjoy it immensely. Not the kind of antiquated audience that requires coherence, logic, character development or insight, even from farce—not to mention a satisfying fusion of music, lyrics and plot. I’m talking about the kind of audience weaned on too much America’s Got Talent and Dancing With the Stars.

In all the terminal, self-conscious cuteness, the cast keeps coming up for air, and you can’t say they don’t give it their all. But to what end? In what must be the lowest point in her career, Judy Kaye still miraculously manages to stop the show, swigging lemonade spiked with gin and swinging drunk from a chandelier singing “Looking for a Boy.” Shaking her shoulders and falling on her face in stiletto heels, Ms. O’Hara strips to her undies in Jimmy’s satin sheets and has a few fine comic moments on “Treat Me Rough” (but nothing to equal June Allyson, gobsmacking Mickey Rooney in Girl Crazy). None of the transitions make sense. Seven bathing beauties rising from a pink bubble bath are an admitted distraction from the doldrums, but why are they singing “Delicious”? Even Ira Gershwin admitted it was one of his dopiest and least favorite lyrics. Billie’s confession that she’s really a criminal storing hootch in the basement leads, for reasons nobody can explain, to a duet of “S’Wonderful.” Except for one genuine highlight—a clever combination of two musical styles when rubber-faced Mr. McGrath’s “Sweet and Low Down” teams up with Ms. Kaye’s high-minded “By Strauss”—the musical ideas in Nice Work if You Can Get It are regrettably lacking in any real wit and sadly without a shred of originality. The choreography is so uninspired that every dance move has been seen before in every movie musical from Top Hat to Singin’ in the Rain. The dancers seem dazed, wriggling and flapping their arms like spastic penguins. In one final act of desperation, the show comes alive in the final five minutes by bringing out the one and only Estelle Parsons! She’s Mr. Broderick’s tyrannical mother, she’s got sarcasm and wit to spare, and she adds a last-minute surprise as entertaining as it is preposterous. The poor woman waits nearly two and a half hours to get five minutes of laughs and her curtain-call applause is worth it. She’s a sport and the money must be good, but if you care about such things, my advice is get there fast. She won’t be there long.

rreed@observer.com