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by Michael Portantiere

No, No, Nanette is the Bee's Knees

  • Mara Davi and company in NO, NO, NANETTE; photo by Joan Marcus


    The word "revisal" has come to be rather a dirty one, with dreadful rewrites of old shows far outnumbering the successful examples. But in 1971, they got it right. A guy named Harry Rigby had the crazy idea that, in the wake of shows like Hair and Oh, Calcutta!, Broadway audiences might just cotton to No, No, Nanette -- a cute, feather-light 1925 musical comedy that had been hugely popular in its day but had pretty much faded from the public consciousness, partly because no representative movie version was ever made.

    Burt Shevelove adapted the original book of the show by Otto Harbach and Frank Mandel to make it more accessible to modern-day comic sensibilities. Set in New York and Atlantic City, Nanette centers around Jimmy Smith, a Bible publisher who just wants everyone to be happy. To this end, he gives cash to three young gold-diggers and is thus caught in a compromising position -- even though, we are told, he never laid a hand on any of them. When Jimmy's lawyer, Billy Early, tries to help his client, his wife Lucille thinks he's the one who's philandering. Meanwhile, Jimmy's high-spirited young ward Nanette is determined to "lead the high life" for a while before settling down, and this gets her in trouble with her strait-laced boyfriend, Tom.

    All ends happily, but at any rate, the plot is hardly the point of this show. It's just an excuse for a series of great songs by Vincent Youmans (music), Irving Caesar & Otto Harbach (lyrics). These in turn are excuses for amazing dance routines that have always been the show's raison d'etre. And indeed, it's the dancing that's the supreme highlight of the City Center Encores! production, which opened last night four a four-day run.

    From the joyous tapping in "I Want to Be Happy" to the breezy soft-shoe in "Tea for Two" to the nifty, Charleston-inspired moves in "Take a Little One Step," choreographer Randy Skinner delivers the goods over and over again, continually topping himself. And since he has a company of phenomenal dancers at his disposal, Nanette turns out to be a show full of show-stoppers. City Center is due for a renovation, and none too soon; at several points during last night's performance, the audience reaction was so vocal and visceral that I half expected the roof to blow off and the walls to collapse.

    My praise of the choreography is certainly not meant to imply that the production is lacking in any other area. On the contrary, the Encores! Orchestra -- here conducted by the series' original music director, Rob Fisher -- sounds better than ever as it plays the lush orchestrations that Ralph Burns and Luther Henderson wrote for the 1971 revisal. Some of the Encores! shows have been over-amplified, but that's not the case here, thanks to sound designer Scott Lehrer. Scenic consultant John Lee Beatty has provided two lovely, gauzy false proscenia to frame the action and just enough in the way of additional set pieces to establish the various locales, which are beautifully lit by Ken Billington. Nanette also boasts more elaborate costuming that any previous Encores! show, courtesy of Gregg Barnes. Perhaps this is one reason why rumors of a Broadway transfer have arisen?

    Walter Bobbie directs the proceedings with just the right touch of flapper-era whimsy, and his casting of the leads is spot-on. Though Charles Kimbrough seemed a bit tentative with some of his lines on opening night, he brings the perfect air of sweet, comic befuddlement to the role of Jimmy. As Jimmy's wife, Sue, Sandy Duncan is a wonderfully warm presence and an awesome dancer. In "I Want to Be Happy," and "Take a Little One Step" she keeps right up with the kids in the ensemble, most of whom are probably less than half her age.

    Beth Leavel and Michael Berresse are style personified as Lucille and Billy; her big solo moment is "The 'Where-Has-My-Hubby-Gone' Blues," he shines most brightly in "The Call of the Sea" and "Telephone Girlie," and they really set off sparks when they come together for the multi-part song and dance duet "You Can Dance With Any Girl." Mara Davi is a more belty, less soprano-ish Nanette than I'm used to hearing, but this makes her seem all the more spunky. As her intended, Tom, Shonn Wiley sings as smoothly as he dances.

    Angel Reda, Jennifer Cody, and Nancy Anderson offer sharply etched comic caricatures of Flora, Betty, and Winnie, the three young ladies who want their "Uncle Jimmy" to keep making them happy. And Rosie O'Donnell delivers a disciplined, thoroughly professional, hilariously deadpan performance as Sue's and Jimmy's long-suffering maid, Pauline.

    The Encores! series has given us some unforgettable shows, but this is truly one of the best ever. No, No, Nanette is the bee's knees!

    Published on Friday, May 9, 2008

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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