• U.S.

Tap Dancing into Yesterday

5 minute read
William A. Henry III

The opening and closing images in Crazy for You, a “new” Gershwin brothers musical that opened on Broadway last week, depict chorus girls in giant headdresses out of some Busby Berkeley-style fantasy. These shimmering daydreams, afloat in dark space, pay homage to a bygone Broadway and to the movies of the pre-World War II era that have preserved its style for latter- day audiences. Between the wistful glints of remembered magic unfolds a plot aptly concerning two moribund musical theaters, one on the Great White Way, the other in dusty Deadrock, Nev. In both cases the solution is said to be simple: put on a bouncy, pretty, old-fashioned and campily funny extravaganza, heavy on ostrich feathers and light on social significance, and people will come flocking back.

Crazy for You was greeted with all but universal cheers last week, less for what the show is — a pleasant evening of well-loved songs and imaginative choreography hitched to a slow narrative, obvious jokes, completely undefined characters and mediocre performances — than for its shameless retrospection, its bland assertion that Broadway’s future lies in its past. The second act contains two gratuitous slurs on the “concept” musicals that have dominated the past decade: a visual slap at Grand Hotel and a verbal slam toward Les Miserables. Yet those shows have precisely what Crazy for You so painfully lacks: propulsive storytelling, cinematically fluid staging, emotionally powerful character songs, and a sense that something urgent and meaningful is at stake.

The hoopla over Crazy is the centerpiece of a musical nostalgia binge that is sweeping over Broadway as it nears the end of a season in which the only truly new American musical, Nick & Nora, died quickly and the one new musical yet to come, Metro, is being imported from Warsaw with an all-Polish creative team and cast, albeit performing in English.

A week before Crazy for You, which is touting itself as a new musical for awards purposes but is in fact a reworking of the theme and score of the Gershwins’ 1930 Girl Crazy, Broadway was graced by a straightforward revival of 1956’s The Most Happy Fella. By the end of April, those shows are to be joined by Man of La Mancha (1965) and Guys and Dolls (1950), and a belated transfer of the off-Broadway hits March of the Falsettos (1981) and Falsettoland (1990), now paired in a single evening. In addition are three “new” musicals recycling songs by black composers: Five Guys Named Moe, produced by London impresario Cameron Mackintosh but mounted by Americans around the work of Louis Jordan; Jelly’s Last Jam, featuring Jelly Roll Morton music and tap dancers Gregory Hines and Savion Glover; and The High Rollers Social and Pleasure Club, a review starring New Orleans songwriter Allen Toussaint.

Guys and Dolls offers a nonpareil text and score, and a creative team so impressive that before the first preview, a year-long national tour starting in September had already been booked around the U.S. But the $5.5 million staging of composer-lyricist Frank Loesser’s comic gem will be hard pressed to equal the emotional impact of his Most Happy Fella, telling of an inept but earnest quest for love by a hulking, homely immigrant farmer in California’s Napa Valley. The book, also by Loesser, is intermittently burdened with the same irritating cuteness and insincerity that lumbers Crazy for You and so many others of its ilk. The score, as well, has an overabundance of the customary novelty songs (“Big D little a double l a s”) and robust group numbers set in town squares. But the show achieves absolute emotional believability in the performance of the title role by Spiro Malas, a baritone behemoth who does not stint either the character’s crudeness or his virtue. When he stands alone, singing of his needs, the patina of the period slips away and what remains is timeless art.

Crazy for You has several moments when characters might wrench out their feelings. But in the leading roles of a playboy who just wants to sing and dance, and a small-town gal who just wants to honor her dad, Harry Groener is all tinny energy and Jodi Benson is all hollow spunk, so even the big ballads don’t pay off. He dances and sings just well enough to remind one of the greats without rivaling them. She is so amplified vocally that she sounds as though she were in a recording studio. The real blame belongs with the show’s creators, notably director Mike Ockrent and book writer Ken Ludwig. In their quest for Broadway’s past glory, they have forgotten the distinction between music and a musical. Great tunes are fine, and Crazy for You has them. But it takes great words, great stories and above all great feelings to make a great show.

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