Crazy For You, New York Times, 15 April, 1992
Crazy for You; A Fresh Chorus of Gershwin on Broadway
By FRANK RICH (NYT). Published: February 20, 1992
When future historians try to find the exact moment at which Broadway finally rose up to grab the musical back from the British, they just may conclude that the revolution began last night. The shot was fired at the Shubert Theater, where a riotously entertaining show called "Crazy for You" uncorked the American musical's classic blend of music, laughter, dancing, sentiment and showmanship with a freshness and confidence rarely seen during the "Cats" decade.
Arriving within days of the enchanting production of "The Most Happy Fella," its next-door neighbor in Shubert Alley, and a few weeks before three other eagerly anticipated American musicals promised for this season ("Guys and Dolls," "Jelly's Last Jam" and "Falsettos"), "Crazy for You" could not be a more celebratory expression of a long-awaited shift in Broadway's fortunes. And what more appropriate house could it play in than the Shubert, a theater too cozy to contain London's musical spectaculars, a theater that has been the sad symbol of the hole in Broadway's heart since "A Chorus Line" closed there two years ago?
"Crazy for You" calls itself a "new Gershwin musical comedy," and that's what it is: a musical comedy with songs by George and Ira Gershwin that makes everything old seem young again, the audience included. It is not a revival of "Girl Crazy," the 1930 Gershwin hit with which it shares 5 of its 18 numbers and a smidgen of plot, and it is not to be remotely confused with recent Broadway exercises in camp and nostalgia like "42d Street," "My One and Only" and "Oh, Kay!" The miracle that has been worked here -- most ingeniously, though not exclusively, by an extraordinary choreographer named Susan Stroman and the playwright Ken Ludwig -- is to take some of the greatest songs ever written for Broadway and Hollywood and reawaken the impulse that first inspired them. "Crazy for You" scrapes away decades of cabaret and jazz and variety-show interpretations to reclaim the Gershwins' standards, in all their glorious youth, for the dynamism of the stage.
As soon as the overture begins, you know that the creators of this show have new and thrilling ideas, and are determined to make us hear familiar songs as if for the first time. William D. Brohn's orchestration acknowledges the standard treatment of "I Got Rhythm" but then reworks it, holding its full contour in smoldering check until finally it must erupt like a forest fire through the conductor Paul Gemignani's rollicking pit band. When the curtain rises, it is to the elevating opening bars of "Stairway to Paradise," a song that is never sung in "Crazy for You" but, in a typical example of the evening's cunning, is used more than once as an incidental motif to pump up the audience's pulse rate before springing the next theatrical surprise.
Those surprises are often the creations of Ms. Stroman, who, given a full corps of crack dancers, expands exponentially on the winning style she revealed in the revue "And the World Goes 'Round." In "Crazy for You," she works her magic with the plainest of stories. Mr. Ludwig's book is about nothing more than a wealthy Manhattan ne'er-do-well of the Depression, the stage-stuck Bobby Child (Harry Groener), who ends up in a broke Nevada mining town, where he rescues a bankrupt theater and wins the local girl, Polly Baker (Jodi Benson). Yet the choreographer reminds us that the well-worn imperatives of archetypal Astaire-and-Rogers, Mickey-and-Judy scenarios -- boy meets girl, let's put on a show -- can evoke untold joy when harnessed to movement, melodies and words that spell them out with utter conviction in musical-comedy skywriting.
Ms. Stroman's dances do not comment on such apparent influences as Fred Astaire, Hermes Pan and Busby Berkeley so much as reinvent them. Rather than piling on exhausting tap routines to steamroll the audience into enjoying itself, the choreographer uses the old forms in human proportion, to bring out specific feelings in the music and lyrics. When Mr. Groener leaps sideways on a thrice-repeated phrase in "Nice Work if You Can Get It" -- to take just a throwaway bit -- his legs are both punching out the notes in George Gershwin's tune and illustrating the sexual yearning in Ira Gershwin's verse. Ms. Stroman is not afraid of repose, either. In "Embraceable You," the embrace counts more than the steps, and the number reaches its consummation with a kiss that leaves the dance as dizzyingly unresolved as the newly acquainted couple's relationship.
Yet it is the big numbers in "Crazy for You" that people will be talking about, and in these, Ms. Stroman's signature is her use of homespun props, rather than an avalanche of spectacle, to turn her dances into theater. In "I Got Rhythm," the Act I finale, the regenerated hicks and drunks of Deadrock, Nev., whip up a torrent of music and merriment with washboards, corrugated tin roofing and mining picks. "Slap That Bass" creates a visual jamboree out of pieces of rope, while "Stiff Upper Lip" finds the exhilarated populace erecting a house of chairs that figuratively parallels the accelerating spirits of their song and dance.
Short of George Balanchine's "Who Cares?" at the New York City Ballet, I have not seen a more imaginative choreographic response to the Gershwins onstage. That Ms. Stroman's numbers are theater dances that advance the show rather than bring it to repeated halts is also a tribute to Mr. Ludwig. His book has no intellectual content, and wants none, but is a model of old-school musical-comedy construction in its insistence on establishing a context, whether narrative, comic or emotional, for every song. Mr. Ludwig also knows how to write jokes in the 1930's style, the funniest of which are reserved for such fine, acerbic clowns as Bruce Adler (a Florenz Ziegfeld stand-in), Jane Connell (the hero's meddling mother), and John Hillner and Michele Pawk as a pair of villains who fuse in a sadomasochistic dance (to the obscure "Naughty Baby") that is the funniest of the several Stroman duets that turn seduction into an intricate, combative entanglement of limbs.
Mr. Ludwig is not above recycling mistaken-identity gags from his previous 1930's show-biz farce, "Lend Me a Tenor" -- which had twin Otellos to match this script's twin Ziegfelds -- but, as directed with a deep appreciation of slapstick by Mike Ockrent, the burlesque humor rarely flags. Mr. Ockrent, it must be said, is English, but, unsurprisingly, his hit West End musical of the 1980's was "Me and My Girl," a knockoff of Broadway musicals of the Gershwin 30's.
Those looking to quibble with Mr. Ockrent's lithe production, which marches to a contemporary rhythm rather than that of a period piece, may question his choice of a leading lady. Ms. Benson's big voice (best known from the title role of the Disney film "The Little Mermaid") and brash Mermanesque manner are fun, but she does not find the tenderness in "Someone to Watch Over Me." As for the exuberant Mr. Groener, a Jimmy Stewart who can hoof and sing, he typifies the kind of Broadway performer who has had too little work in our day; he has spent more time on television than onstage since his smash debut as Will Parker in the 1979 "Oklahoma!" Here he not only commands his numbers but also sets the cool tone required to make a complex theatrical undertaking look carefree.
Among the sophisticated complexities of "Crazy for You" is Robin Wagner's scenery, which, as backed by the starry Hollywood sound-stage skies of the lighting designer, Paul Gallo, transport the company from a glittery old Times Square to a picture-book comic frontier reminiscent of "Destry Rides Again." Since Mr. Ludwig's book largely unfolds in and around theaters, Mr. Wagner gets to recreate Joseph Urban's facade for the original Ziegfeld Theater in New York as well as the gilded Victorian interiors of a mythical, reborn Gaiety Theater in Deadrock.
The most startling of Mr. Wagner's theatrical settings, though, is the first, an angular vision of a Broadway theater's wings that specifically echoes the opening set of "Dreamgirls," the last of this designer's collaborations with Michael Bennett. "Crazy for You" is not innovative, as the Bennett shows were, and it lacks the brand-new songs that must be the musical theater's lifeblood. But the evening is bursting with original talent that takes off on its own cocky path, pointedly mocking recent British musicals even as it sassily rethinks the American musical tradition stretching from the Gershwins to Bennett.
"In 2,000 years, there has been one resurrection, and it wasn't a theater," goes one of the evening's many show-biz one-liners. But in the secular land of Broadway, starved musical-theater audiences can't be blamed for at least dreaming that "Crazy for You" heralds a second coming. Crazy for You Music by George Gershwin; lyrics by Ira Gershwin; book by Ken Ludwig; co-conceived by Mr. Ludwig and Mike Ockrent; directed by Mr. Ockrent; choreographed by Susan Stroman; inspired by material by Guy Bolton and John McGowan; scenery by Robin Wagner; costumes by William Ivey Long; lighting by Paul Gallo; dance and incidental music arranged by Peter Howard; musical consultant, Tommy Krasker; sound by Otts Munderloh; fight staging by B. H. Barry. Presented by Roger Horchow and Elizabeth Williams. At the Shubert Theater, 225 West 44th Street, Manhattan. Tess . . . Beth Leavel Patsy . . . Stacey Logan Bobby Child . . . Harry Groener Bela Zangler . . . Bruce Adler Irene Roth . . . Michele Pawk Mother . . . Jane Connell Moose, Mingo and Sam The Manhattan Rhythm Kings Polly Baker . . . Jodi Benson Everett Baker . . . Ronn Carroll Lank Hawkins . . . John Hillner Eugene . . . Stephen Temperley Patricia . . . Amelia White.