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Theatre in Review: Some Like It Hot (Shubert Theatre)

NaTasha Yvette Williams (center) and company. Photo: Marc J. Franklin

It has been a fraught season, sometimes marked by dramas more compelling offstage than on, but, at the Shubert, you can relax; the professionals are in charge. After a few months in which the new musicals have seemingly suffered from pernicious anemia, Some Like It Hot finds new vigor in roaring, raucous musical comedy. An old-style show with a new-style point of view, it updates Billy Wilder's vintage film farce with a nod to today's sensibilities. And, beginning with its sweet and low-down opener, a-pass-the-booze-and-damn-the-Depression party-starter titled "What Are You Thirsty For?", audiences thirsty for a shot of pep are likely to be in heaven. It's better than vitamins.

It's funny how every generation or so, Wilder, Hollywood's most hard-bitten cynic, provides new musical theatre inspiration. In the 1960s, Promises, Promises, based on The Apartment, reinvigorated the form with a jolt of caffeinated Burt Bacharach melodies. In the '90s. Sunset Boulevard's gaudy, gothic melodrama, transformed by Andrew Lloyd Webber's expansive score, was catnip to a succession of leading ladies. One of cinema's most unlikely sources of material has been one of its most fruitful. And then there was 1973's Sugar, also based on Some Like It Hot, which eked out a decent run after a classic, David Merrick, Bataan-death-march tryout, during which, among other things, the entire scenic design was replaced. Even with a Jule Styne -- Bob Merrill score, it was generally considered to be a lame, lackluster affair, seemingly foreclosing on any further Broadway prospects. And, given the disappointing runs in recent seasons of Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire, accompanied by angry charges of transphobia, anyone writing a cross-dressing comedy would want to tread very, very carefully.

As it happens, book writers Matthew López and Amber Ruffin (with an assist from Christian Borle, who also stars, and Joe Farrell) know what to keep and what to tweak from Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond's screenplay. As in the original, Joe and Jerry, a pair of down-at-their-heels musicians (here, they're also dancers, The Tip Tap Twins) accidentally stumble into a mob rubout. Because it is Chicago during Prohibition, their new status as material witnesses make them prime candidates for cement overcoats. Desperate to blow the town, pronto, they don feminine drag, signing up with an all-girl jazz band bound for San Diego and hiding in plain sight as "Josephine" and "Daphne." Of course, this drastic solution only yields a hundred new challenges, including confounding romantic entanglements and additional brushes with gun-toting gangsters.

Looking for a fresh point of view, López and Ruffin make a couple of key decisions. First, Jerry is now Black, which gives an extra heft to his long-running friendship with Joe and allows for some snappy remarks about race. More crucially, Jerry discovers, to his profound surprise, his inner Daphne; his coming-out moment is realized in the brassily amusing showstopper "You Could Have Knocked Me Over with a Feather," which makes his life-changing epiphany into both a triumph and cause for hilarity.

There's also the Marilyn Monroe problem. The role of Sugar, the band's captivating, yet troubled, singer was originated by one of cinema's most indelible icons; how to get around that? López and Ruffin smartly reimagine her as a Black woman with poignant dreams of movie stardom but dogged by the male wolf pack and a fondness for the bottle. Adrianna Hicks, late of Six (where she reigned as Catherine of Aragon) initially strikes a low-key note before launching into the walloping ballad, "A Deeper Shade of Blue," promptly taking the roof off the Shubert and probably the Broadhurst and the Majestic down the block. (She further cleans up with the Act II torcher "Ride Out the Storm," leaving little doubt that Sugar could conquer Hollywood, Paris, Karachi, or any other city on the map.) She shares a warm, lively connection with Borle as Joe, who is desperate to get out of his girdle and into bed with Sugar. (In another innovation, the film's funny, but of-its-time, spoof of Cary Grant has been thrown out; to woo Sugar, Joe now passes himself off as an Austrian screenwriter, not unlike, say, Billy Wilder.)

Borle wisecracks his way through these proceedings with a Bob Hope flair, taking on the chin any number of comments about his lack of feminine charms. (Dressed up and bewigged, he looks eerily like the Southern gothic novelist Flannery O'Connor, surely a blow to this practiced Lothario.) He also enjoys a fantastic chemistry with J. Harrison Ghee as Jerry/Daphne. Ghee, tall enough to look down an NBA net, initially seems riotously inappropriate in women's clothes, but half of the fun lies in watching him ease into the role until there's no going back. He also underplays brilliantly, casting pricelessly deadpan looks of disapproval at Joe's latest scheme, and partnering effortlessly with Borle in the vaudeville pleasures of "You Can't Have Me (If You Don't Have Him)."

Kevin Del Aguila, whose bones were apparently surgically removed and replaced with elastic bands, leaps around with manic pixie glee as Osgood, the lovelorn hotelier who decides that Daphne is the woman of his dreams. (His introductory number, "Poor Little Millionaire" is an Act I highlight.) As the bandleader Sweet Sue, NaTasha Yvette Williams scat-sings with gusto when not fiercely riding herd on her misbehaving musicians. There are also fun contributions from Adam Heller as a tough-talking lawman; Angie Schworer as the band's smart-aleck, dim-bulb drummer; and Mark Lotito as a gangland kingpin, chuckling over a newspaper headline that reads "Grisly Murder."

The book is a model of construction, maintaining the film's farcical premise while providing enough emotional authenticity to keep us rooting for the characters, especially when Joe, discovering real feelings for Sugar, starts to develop a conscience. The Daphne -- Osgood relationship, played entirely for laughs in the film, becomes something much more touching, especially when, onto her game, he tells her, "The world reacts to what it sees and in my experience the world doesn't have very good eyesight." Indeed, virtually everyone among the principals is sitting on a secret -- a name, a nationality, an assumed identity -- that must be shed before happiness can be attained. Marc Shaiman's score delivers a swingy big-band sound, allowing for intimate moments that let the show catch its breath. His lyrics, written with Scott Wittman are cheekily risqué, no more than in the title tune, with its each-to-his-own philosophy. ("And though the postman might ring twice/Some like the man who brings the ice/He cometh with the block to stock my Frigidaire!")

Casey Nicholaw's direction maintains with a light touch while executing gags with military precision, staging a triple murder for maximum hilarity, uncorking a first-act finale so exuberant that it's a wonder the dancers don't jitterbug off the stage, and orchestrating a frantic, door-slamming chase that may be his tribute to Jerome Robbins' "Bathing Beauty Ballet" from the 1947 musical High Button Shoes. Throughout, the show exudes a confidence that allows the audience to relax and have a good time.

The production design is equally assured. Scott Pask frames the action in a sleek, slivery two-level Art Deco superstructure that gets many colorful tone-ups from Natasha Katz's unfailingly lovely lighting. (It's a little like seeing a period film that shifts from black and white to color.) Pask also delivers, among other things, a paddy wagon, a passenger train that splits open, a mint-green-and-cream hotel lobby, and a Mexican cantina with wrought iron decor. Gregg Barnes creates a plentiful parade of nattily tailored suits, pastel day dresses, and band uniforms, plus a smashing tuxedo for Sweet Sue and an ensemble for Daphne that includes a fur-trimmed traveling suit and a carnelian senorita outfit suitable for a south-of-the-border spree. Josh Marquette's hair designs make good use of the 1930's shingled look. It would be lovely if Brian Ronan's sound design let the voices sit atop the music a tiny bit more -- one doesn't want to miss a word of the lyrics -- but he gives Charlie Rosen and Bryan Carter's orchestrations their due without overwhelming us with decibels.

Best of all is the way that Some Like It Hot makes room for its characters in all their colors and variations. After so many plays anxiously consumed with issues of gender and identity, it's a delight to a see a musical embrace them with a wink, a shrug, and a welcoming gesture; that one happily accepts its blatantly unrealistic ending is a tribute to the spell the show casts. It is, to be sure, the lightest of entertainments. At the same time, it envisions a better, more inclusive, world. And I like that just fine. --David Barbour


(16 December 2022)

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