DF Reviews Lady, Be Good! (Encores, New York, February 2015)

LADY, BE GOOD PosterEncores Musicals in Concert opened their current season – the 22nd, if I’m counting correctly – with exactly the kind of show I’m happy to see them do.

George and Ira Gershwin’s Lady, Be Good! is remembered (if at all) for a couple of songs (“Fascinating Rhythm,” especially) and the presence of brother-and-sister stars Fred and Adele Astaire playing brother and sister leading characters, Dick and Susie Trevor. But the musical itself has basically vanished, and in fact requires major curatorial efforts to reconstruct it.

In fact, it’s the first Broadway score by George and Ira Gershwin, and the earliest show that Encores has taken on so far. And while I don’t think anybody walked away thinking we’d found a forgotten jewel ready to bring back to Broadway, there were more than enough charms to keep the audience’s attention – and teach us something, too.

I learned, for example, that Gershwin’s early theatre music was already full of remarkably sophisticated touches. The Lady, Be Good! overture includes a few sly quotes from Rhapsody in Blue, which premiered the same year – and the rest of the score has a similar combination of propulsive energy, rhythmic surprises and tunefulness. (Most of the original orchestrations are lost, but Bill Elliott created impeccably stylish new ones here.) In addition to “Fascinating Rhythm,” I’d nominate “The Half of it, Dearie, Blues” and “Little Jazz Bird” as top-tier Gershwin songs, along with a lovely and little known opening number, “Hang On To Me.”

Video: Excerpts from Lady, Be Good, courtesy of Broadway.com

Casting was likewise at a generally very high level. Danny Gardner (Dick) has a doleful, slightly plain-but-sweet presence that evokes the young Astaire, and more importantly, a similar sense of grace and tap skills (his dance break in “Half of it, Dearie, Blues” brought the evening’s biggest ovation). Patti Murin (Susie) is a sparklingly pretty comedienne with sweet soprano – she also dances well, and has a sense of period. There was fine supporting work by Colin Donnell, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Richard Poe, Kirsten Wyatt, Erin Mackey, Jeff Hiller and especially Douglas Sills. Randy Skinner’s choreography, making abundant use of both ‘20s dance moves and a few Astaire specialty bits, was delightful.

Danny Gardner and Patti Murin in Lady, Be Good! at Encores

Danny Gardner and Patti Murin in Lady, Be Good! at Encores

And then there was Tommy Tune.

Tune was billed as the “Special Guest,” which seemed strange to me (in the world of Encores, where they do seven performance only, surely both everyone and no one in the cast are “guests?”), but it turned out to be accurate, in both good and bad ways.

Tune, now 75, still has star quality to burn, and a distinctive, even unique, presence. He can still tap dance, too, though a sense of care has replaced what once looked so joyfully, loosely spontaneous.

But every aspect of his persona – the tan, the bouffant hair, the identically tailored bright red and electric blue suits, and most of all the mannerisms – recall nothing so much as a 1960s TV variety show like The Hollywood Palace. I don’t really object to the fact that Tune doesn’t fit in – this particular spot was built around a specialty performer – but the particular way in which he doesn’t fit disrupts the sense of style that everyone else has so successfully achieved.

Tommy Tune in Lady, Be Good! at Encores

Tommy Tune in Lady, Be Good! at Encores

I suppose the other disappointment is the book, which holds things together only the loosest sense. Perhaps 90 years ago, there was some effervescence in the one-liners and gags concocted by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson, but I’m not so sure. I came away thinking that if songs and choreography of Lady, Be Good! helped propel Fred Astaire to stardom, perhaps Bolton and Thompson’s book was partially responsible for convincing Adele to get out of the business (she married a wealthy aristocrat and retired by 1932).

Still, it was a delight to spend an evening immersed in Gershwin greatness. Next up from Encores – Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon. Maybe I’ll finally learn who calls the wind Maria, and why.

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