Julian Eaves reviews Nice Work If You Can Get It by Joe DiPietro featuring the music of George and Ira Gershwin presented by Ovation Productions Upstairs at the Gatehouse.
Nice Work If You Can Get It
Upstairs At The Gatehouse
14th December 2018
The Christmas season show at this premier London fringe theatre is always the flagship event of the year, awaited with keen expectation. The house production company, Ovation, created by resident producer Katie and director John Plews, has as its aim the presentation of high-quality musical theatre entertainment, featuring the best of emerging talent combined with the know-how of experienced professionals, all delivered at near-to budget prices. It is a winning formula and has resulted in a chain of magnificent small-scale stagings of big shows, brilliantly realised in the intimate, 200-or so seater space above the increasingly highly regarded North London gastro-pub, situated at the top of the village.
This year, the enterprising Plews have scored quite a coup in winning the UK premiere of Joe Dipietro’s Tony Award-winning ‘invention’ of a ‘new’ screwball musical comedy that draws generously – but always lightly – on the delightfully jocund and silly 1920s musicals of Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse: a world of two-dimensional but vivid characters, madcap escapades and always punchily topical resonances, held up to good-natured satirical inspection. Here, the lighter-than-air plot concerns a young, glamorous man-about-town, who is intending to marry for money a shallower than cellophane heiress but is increasingly thrown together by fate with a much more appropriate, but racily dangerous female hoodlum with a heart. Around them revolve a constellation of bizarre stereotypes of the genre – the domineering but wildly liberated mother, the crooks who hammily masquerade as obsequious servants, the incompetent policeman, the venal politician, the disapproving moralist, and so on, admonished with a vivacious ensemble of chorus girls and boys, who pack the stage as often as possible for splendid song and dance numbers.
And what numbers! The musical score (supervised by Charlie Ingles) here is patched together out of some well-known, and some almost-never-heard-before tunes by George and Ira Gershwin, which never fail to delight, in arrangements of artful imaginativeness by Bill Elliott. And the musical stagings by Grant Murphy (assisted by Amy Perry) arise seamlessly out of the brisk direction by Plews: watch out for perhaps the stand-out theatrical coup of the bathtime sequence, in which Pollyanna Elston’s design rises to wonderful heights of silliness, and not forgetting her always impeccable attention to detail in the ravishing costuming of the production (supervised by Nadine Froehlich, with lovely wigs by another member of the host family team, Jessica Plews). Everything is handsomely lit by Sam Waddington, and sound design is by Nico Menghini, who does wonders to balance the twelve voices of the cast with the brash, brassy band of six up in the musicians’ gallery.
It is in the fortunes of the characters, however, that our hearts remain securely involved. Alistair So (Jimmy Winter) is an up-and-coming talent, recently covering for Lun Tha in the opulent production of ‘The King and I’ at the Palladium, and his is a voice of wonderful beauty, with some really knock-out top notes and a lush, warm centre; opposite him, Jessica-Elizabeth Nelson (Billie Bendix) is perfectly contrasted, with a steely, crystalline mezzo that can make the brassiest show tune or the softest, most delicate ballad shine with a pearly luminescence. Extraordinarily, the musical director, Chris Poon is making his professional debut with this sterling cast, and eliciting from them top drawer performances that bespeak a glittering career ahead of him (some may have experienced his stunning ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ for NYMT at The Other Palace a couple of summers ago, amongst other highlights in his already impressive CV).
The rest of the cast comprise the gorgeously awful fiancee, Eileen Evergreen (Charlotte Scally), David Pendlebury’s bumptiously lovable rogue, Cookie McGee, Abigail Earnshaw’s by turns coy and vulgar Jeannie Muldoon, Fraser Fraser’s winningly gauche Duke Mahoney, Harry Cooper-Millar’s gullible and dim Chief Berry, Stuart Simons’ clunkingly indulgent paterfamilias, Senator Max Evergreen, Grace McInerny’s double whammy as friend Dottie and the superb mother, Millicent, the awful killjoy Estonia Dulworth – a riot of fun in the hands of Nova Skipp, and the other ensemble players of Adam Crossley (the Senator’s chum, Elliot, and also dance captain) and Kirsten Mackie (who also takes the featured role of Rosie).
While the script wanders from time to time in its grip on the right tone, and the comic spirit may from time to time fall as well as rise, the essence of the show is always very much situated in the right place, and as holiday fare, this could hardly prove a more effective distraction from the many unpleasant realities currently preoccupying us. Just as in the 1920s, today has its appetite for escapist fun, and this show provides that in abundance. Go and enjoy!