I wasn’t sure what to expect from a “new” George Gershwin musical, and was hoping that the evening wouldn’t be my least favourite musical theatre category, the “juke box musical” in which a string of hits is joined together with a weak narrative.
Thankfully, by the time the curtain came down on The Production Company’s latest show, Nice Work If You Can Get It, it was obvious that this was a fine show with an engaging story and excellent casting.
The publicity claims that this bubbling 1920’s-era musical sparkles with extravagant dance numbers, glittering costumes and a delicious, if not unlikely, love story between an endearing millionaire playboy and an enchanting tom-boy bootlegger. That’s a fair assessment, although I must admit to a few qualms when the show started quietly and I felt it took until Gina Riley’s first entrance as the larger than life character Estonia Dulworth, Duchess of Woodford and keen prohibitionist, to really hit its straps.
But hit its straps it did, and this light and airy confection with witty one-liners had the audience in its thrall from then on.
I was impressed with the perfect casting and direction from Roger Hodgman, with the triple threat with the matinee idol looks, Rohan Browne, as the sometimes clueless male romantic lead, Jimmy Winter. As his intended bride, Eileen Evergreen, the self-proclaimed best interpreter of modern dance in the world, Christie Whelan Browne gave full rein to her wonderful comedic talents, and the way she used her long limbs had the audience in stitches.
Esther Hannaford as romantic lead Billie Bendix gave what I feel is the best performance of her career, mastering both nasal American and Cockney accents at the required times, and managing to portray the pathos of a girl surprised by being in love, mixed with great comic timing and inner toughness when the character required it. She was perfect in this multi-layered role.
Gina Riley (“Kim” to Kath and Kim devotees) and George Kapiniaris (memorable from his Wogs Out Of Work television days) stole the show every time they appeared as Estonia and bootlegger-cum-butler Cookie McGee. For those who have only seen their television comedy work, they are fine stage performers with brilliant coming timing and good vocal skills.
Veteran John Wood also used great comic timing in his role as the blustery Senator Evergreen, who was politician, judge and “reverend”, which led to some wonderful one-liners that had the audience chuckling. For older readers, Wood’s portrayal of the Senator was reminiscent of the late, great Noel Ferrier.
Jensen Overend, in the comic supporting role of not too bright bootlegger Duke Mahoney, put in an impressive performance with a good voice and character work. As his would-be social climbing love interest, Monica Swayne was also pleasing. Tony Farrell’s Police Chief Berry was a fun character played by a polished performer with a very pleasant voice.
In the cameo acting role of Jimmy’s mother Millicent, Nicki Wendt was superb – all her fine acting skills and comedic talent were given full rein, even though she is only on stage in the last few scenes, but once seen, never forgotten!
Isaac Lumis’s costumes were imaginative and convincing, and the ensemble did excellent work with Dana Jolly’s great choreography – watching and hearing the ensemble was a constant pleasure throughout the show.
While the story is a vehicle for all Gershwin’s hit tunes, including the title track, plus “Someone To Watch Over Me”, “Let’s Call The Whole thing Off”, “By Strauss” and many more, it is based on the 1920s musical Oh Kay!, added to and updated by Joe diPietro, but inspired by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton. Orchestra Victoria sounded fabulous under the assured baton of John Foreman.
Being in the audience of Nice Work If You Can Get It feels like watching an old-style movie musical, with lots of fun, froth, bubble and great tunes. Don’t expect a multi-layered plot line or any deep and meaningful messages – just sit back and enjoy the show!