Encore goes "Crazy" for the Gershwins
“I like a Gershwin tune, how about you?”
If you do, put on your dancing shoes and head to the Encore Musical Theatre in Dexter for a feast of George Gershwin tunes and Ira Gershwin lyrics.
Crazy for You is a post-Gershwin, Gershwin musical. The 1992 Tony Award-winning best “new musical” brought light singing, dancing, and frivolity back to Broadway. Conceived by and with a book by Ken Ludwig, the play uses the Gershwins’ 1931 Broadway hit Girl Crazy as the framework and then adds numerous songs from other Gershwin stage and film musicals, a few tweaks to the story, and ample room for dance routines. The result is an appropriately bubbly, silly, charming tribute to a style of musical that lit the lights of Broadway in the 1920s and early '30s with great music that lingers on.
Director Daniel Cooney keeps things moving in a cinematic style and some perfectly staged comedy routines. Sarah Tanner’s flexible and humorous sets are swiftly moved in, out and around against a projected backdrop of scenery, from the lights of Broadway to the parched deserts of Nevada. Performers have room to dance, sing and clown in a show that is light as a feather and frothy as a sarsparilla.
The plot, such as it is, involves a frustrated song-and-dance man banker who is ordered by his mother to go west young man to foreclose on a theater in Deadrock, Nevada, and escape from a grasping girlfriend. When he arrives parched in Deadrock, he immediately falls in love with the pretty local postal mistress, whose father just happens to own the theater. He tries to win her over and suggests that he can help her save the theater by “putting on a show” (A reminder that the movie version of Girl Crazy starred Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, who solved all problems by putting on a show). In the process (spoiler alert) he irritates girl, wins girl, loses girl, and wins girl again.
What really matters here is the more than 20 classic Gershwin songs that brought jazz rhythms, rich humor, sophisticated wordplay, and emotional depth to popular music.
Matthew Brennan plays the young banker Bobby Child. Brennan is an amazing performer. He can dance his way from a soft shoe shuffle to an elegant waltz, sing with a low-key but emotive voice, and handle flippant repartee, slapstick falls, and double takes. Brennan channels the spirit of Fred Astaire. He has the same slim frame, easy manner, quick wit, and graceful dance moves. Here he gets to do several numbers made famous by Astaire including “Shall We Dance,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and the very nuanced “They Can’t Take That Away From Me."
Rachel Hafell plays Polly, the Ginger Rogers to Brennan’s Astaire. She has a big voice and forceful personality as the western girl who won’t be taken in by a city slicker. She performs the poignant ballads “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “But Not for Me,” and, with Brennan, a more uptempo take on “Embraceable You.” She gets to lead the way in a rousing “I Got Rhythm” that sets up a wonderful, frenzied finale to Act One.
In addition to playing the lead, Brennan is also the choreographer and this is a dance show. A bevy of chorus girls emerge from a phone booth, a bumbling gang of slacker cowboys suddenly get rhythm and Bobby and Polly tap dance and waltz. There is a rich variety in the dancing from choreographed chaos to the precision movements that dazzled the Great White Way.
Music director Tyler Driskill leads his small ensemble orchestra in a fine performance. Though limited by their instrumentation, they get a surprisingly big sound. Some of the ballads seem a little hurried, but Brennan and Hafell capture the poignancy that underlies even the most offhand humor that was Ira Gershwin’s specialty.
The cowboys make their entrance with a comically slow “Bidin’ My Time.” A standout here is Sebastian Gerstner as Moose, whose droll responses get big laughs. But all of the cowboys perform excellently as they move from bumbling buffoons to snappy “Slap That Bass” performers.
Also getting big laughs is Sarah B. Stevens as Bobby’s jilted fiancee, a love-crazed woman performing a very “Naughty Baby” in pursuit of the cowboy Lank, who has eyes for Polly and her father’s theater. Stevens makes the most of her moment with her broad physical humor and her comic singing that always gets laughs.
Patrick Wallace is appropriately bold as Lank, the closest thing to the villain of the play, and is funny when his ambitions get frustrated.
Bobby disguises himself as the flamboyant Broadway producer Zangler to win over Polly and in a very funny set piece to the Gershwin song “What Causes That” confronts the real Zangler. Brennan and Evan Smith do a funny mirror image routine (in the style of the Marx Brothers) that builds nicely and gets funnier as it goes. Smith and Brennan seem to be enjoying their drunken routine as much as the audience.
It’s easy to see why in the age of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Les Miz, Ludwig saw a need for a course correction and a return to the kind of show that got America singing and dancing. The Gershwins set a high standard for popular music and their songs have endured through numerous changes in musical tastes. Crazy for You is a reminder of just how rich that legacy is.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
“Crazy for You” continues at the Encore Musical Theater, 3126 Broad Street in Dexter, at 7:30 pm on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays and at 2 pm on Saturdays and Sundays through Aug. 11 (except for Thursday, July 4). For tickets call 734-268-6200, visit theencoretheatre.org, or go to the box office.