BWW Reviews: THE NUTTY PROFESSOR Sets Its Sights on Broadway After Its Music City Opening

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Fairly exploding onto the stage, The Nutty Professor-the new musical based on the classic 1963 film comedy-opened at Nashville's James K. Polk Theatre last night in a vibrantly told and visually stunning production helmed by Jerry Lewis, the man who co-wrote the movie and, at this moment, is probably booking a ticket to Broadway . The story of nerdy Professor Julius Kelp and his transformation into the suave and sophisticated (if boorish) Buddy Love offers plenty of laughs to be certain, but perhaps surprisingly, there's a whole lot of heart to be found in Rupert Holmes' book, set tunefully to a classic Marvin Hamlisch score.

With an exquisitely sumptuous physical production-with beautiful  and cleverly designed sets by David Gallo; eye-poppingly gorgeous costumes by Ann Hould-Ward that ideally capture the best of early 1960s fashion; evocative and effective lighting by David Weiner; superb sound design by John Shivers and David Patridge (finally, there's a production in Nashville that doesn't suffer from shaky sound design); and Tom Watson's lovely wigs-The Nutty Professor capitalizes on the pop culture zeitgeist (the Purple Pit scenes fairly radiate a sense of 1960s style) that is exemplified by television's Mad Men and recent Broadway revivals of Promises, Promises and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

But the most noteworthy aspect of The Nutty Professor is, without danger of exaggeration, the amazing choreography of JoAnn M. Hunter, which is at once physically challenging and gracefully elegant, with a certain sensuality that is so evocative of the show's time period. Hunter intelligently focuses on the dance moves of the early '60s that give the show its palpably sexy tone. And although she puts the show's ensemble through a taxing workout in almost two-and-a-half hours, her enormously talented performers dance with an almost effortless, easy grace.

With star-making turns from the show's two leads (Michael Andrew and Marissa McGowan) and a showstopping performance from the Tony-worthy KLea Blackhurst, The Nutty Professor delivers the completely engaging and thoroughly entertaining show promised by the production's starry pedigree. It's an old-fashioned, nostalgic homage to the very best of American musical theater without seeming at all derivative or redundant.

The Nutty Professor arrives on the stage of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center fully-formed and with the air of a completed work of art (two weeks of rehearsals in Nashville-which followed initial New York City rehearsals-prior to a week of previews have apparently been put to good use). On opening night, all the gods of musical theater conspired to give the production a successful maiden voyage, christening the company with a thrilling first official performance that had the audience on its feet during curtain calls. And that opening night performance was free of any of the technical snafus that tend to plague shows in their out-of-town tryouts, despite enough theatrical wizardry to delight even the most jaded of audiences.

It is probably at this point that I should make a confession: I've never seen The Nutty Professor on film-neither the Jerry Lewis original, nor the updated Eddie Murphy version-which probably serves the purpose of this review better: I'm free of any excess baggage or memories of a much-loved film. For me, The Nutty Professor exists only as musical theater (which is how I like to live my life, thank you very much).

From the very first notes of the show's overture, which helps to cement The Nutty Professor's musical theater heritage, to the play's closing moments, the action moves along at a good pace, with more than a little attention paid to making an almost 50-year-old story relevant in the 21st century. But, truth be told, Holmes' book is never didactic or oppressive in its delivery; rather, the play's message that will keep the show's heart beating for years to come is related in an almost matter-of-fact manner, artfully worming its way into the collective soul of the audience.

That message-presented amid all the technical trappings of the production while retaining the off-kilter humor that has won Lewis legions of fans during his long career-is all about accepting yourself for who you are, with all your unique traits and sensibilities intact. While it may take you a lifetime to experience the same epiphany, it only takes Julius Kelp a little more than two hours and a cavalcade of glittering, glitzy production numbers to come to his own realization. (But then your life is probably not set to a Marvin Hamlisch score performed by a Broadway-worthy orchestra of some of Nashville's best musicians, conducted by Stephen Kummer.)

The show starts off with a bang-quite literally-and moves along its way to a hopeful and romantic happy ending that is punctuated by good-hearted fun, some sly references that will make you chuckle and some clever physical schtick that helps the show retain its connection to its source. Clearly, the musical speaks directly to the heart and the professional persona of Jerry Lewis, who has directed the show with a skilled eye to what works best onstage.

Thus, the show never seems self-indulgent or obvious in its intentions: The Nutty Professor, "the new musical," is created to entertain in a way that makes some musical theater of recent vintage seem self-conscious and overly ambitious. But that doesn't mean The Nutty Professor is styled to appeal to the lowest common denominator (in fact, the show is rather expansive in its view of the world in which its characters and their audience live), nor is it basely comedic, going for the easy laugh. Instead, the humor is far more sophisticated than that.

The play's action is set in 1962, at Korwin University-one of those institutions of higher learning where the ivy covers the walls and the football team is venerated for its on-the-field accomplishments-and change, however subtle, is beginning to grip the campus just as certainly as it does the world in general. Down in his chemistry lab, Professor Julius Kelp (played by Michael Andrew), whose lack of social skills and utterly absent fashion sense tag him as an outcast of sorts, awkwardly goes about his day, alienating students and administrators alike.

Although gentle and restrained, Kelp can't find his niche in the university's social strata and is content to do his research in hopes of furthering the work of his forebears whose academic exploits at Korwin have earned them justifiably won places in the college's pantheon. Into his life comes transfer student Stella Purdy (Marissa McGowan) whose enthusiasm for learning is infectious and Julius is instantly smitten. But when he surmises that he will never win her heart, he decides to implement his most dangerous experiment to date: a take on Jekyll and Hyde that ultimately transforms the ill-at-ease Kelp into the dashing and debonair Buddy Love, a lounge singer who becomes the toast of the college crowd.

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Andrew's virtuoso performance is startling in its complexity as he shows off great versatility while morphing from Julius Kelp to Buddy Love and back again twice over with an amazing alacrity. As Kelp, Andrew exudes a certain geeky appeal, while his Buddy Love is darkly attractive even as he is insulting and off-putting (obviously intended to show the dual natures of Kelp's psyche). That Andrew is able to embody both of these characters so completely is certainly an achievement made all the more impressive by his ability to affect each of those changes so remarkably with his voice. Clearly, this is a role he was born to play.

He moves with ease in both men's shoes, lumbering flat-footed about the stage as Kelp and gliding along with the glib persona of Buddy Love (who is not unlike the Mad Men character of Jimmy Barrett, the rude and brusque comic/TV host, who enlivened season two of the award-winning television series) and he delivers both characters' songs (the silly but sweet "Stella" and the sultry "I'm Trouble") with the appropriate emotional depth (or shallowness, depending on your perspective).

Playing opposite Andrew, McGowan is warmly winning in her portrayal of the ambitious young woman who hungers for more knowledge-while taking time to be on the cheerleading squad, lead the glee club and study baton twirling 101. McGowan imbues Stella with a sense of wonder, expressing delight as her word view is broadened and providing the audience with its own view into the fanciful world created onstage.

McGowan shows off her crystalline voice to perfection and Hamlisch has done his part in providing her with the show's big ballad: "While I Still Have the Time," which gives insight into the character of Stella while effectively capturing her dreams and aims without seeming arch or too overtly showy in doing so. It's a gorgeous song (even if it's reprised one time too many) and McGowan gives a performance that ensures you'll remember it long after the show's curtain has rung down.

The supporting players add to the overall feel of a Broadway-ready show with performances that are skillfully underplayed with a penchant for broad theatricality that plays well to the seats furthest away from the stage-just as you would expect from veteran actors.

Mark Jacoby is fine as the button-downed, uptight university president, Dr. Warfield, playing him with the right blend of bluster and arrogant disdain, and Jacoby adds further to the show by becoming feuding brothers Murray the tailor and Maury the gym owner (an effete impersonation of early TV exercise enthusiast Jack LaLanne) in a fantasy/dream sequence that is entertaining even as it tends to slow down the plot's progress. Unfortunately, Jacoby also figures prominently in the score's one clunker of a song-"Take the Stage"-which is nicely staged, thanks to the ensemble's gorgeous bevy of women and Hunter's sharp choreography, but the song itself seems lifted straight out of a Broadway tuner circa 1953. The number is charming and witty in its ham-handed way (heavy on the ham, as it were), but it seems clunky and too old-fashioned by half.

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Clearly, KLea Blackhurst breaks out of her second banana role of Miss Lemon, the adoring secretary to Dr. Warfield, to very nearly steal the show right out from under Andrew and McGowan. An adept comic actress, with a smile that lights up the entire theater, Blackhurst has a confident way of delivering even the most groanable, throwaway line with vitality and a refined sense of freshness that renders it totally effective and, well, new. She is an audience's dream: Funny without being over-the-top, she takes a character who could be a caricature and delivers a warm-hearted evocation of a woman of a certain age setting her sights on what has eluded her in life.

It helps, of course, that she is given a number that encapsulates her character (while making the audience long for more time for Blackhurst in the musical spotlight) completely while showing off the talents that have earned her the adoration of fans. "Step Out of Your Shell" gives Blackhurst the briefest of a Mama Rose musical motif (it's a role she's recently played to acclaim in Chicago) and then propels her center stage, surrounded by six handsome men singing her praises and squiring her around the stage in some of Hunter's most inspired choreography.

If the show makes it to New York City-and there's no reason why it shouldn't-you can expect Blackhurst and Hunter to top the list of Tony Award speculation.

Jamie Ross is quite good as Harrington Winslow, Korwin University's financial benefactor, whose son Chad (played with smarmy charm by Ryan Worsing) is a roué of the first order, cutting classes and breaking coeds' hearts. Tall, dark and handsome Ronnie Nelson is physically commanding as Norm Brodkowski, the KU quarterback who cuts classes and throws passes with equal dexterity.

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Finally, the show's ensemble is filled with a collection of uber-talented performers, each focused and committed to making the most of their time onstage and giving behemoth support to the principals-Alex David, Meghan Glogower, Blair Goldberg, Autumn Guzzardi, Sarah Marie Jenkins, Allison Little, Charles MacEachern, Lindsay Moore, Patrick O'Neill, Dominique Plaisant, Carly Blake Sebouhian, Jason Sparks, Christopher Spaulding, Kristopher Thompson-Bolden and Kyle Vaughn (along with the aforementioned Worsing and Nelson)- they help to create the show's sense of purpose while supplying the physical attributes that give the show its studied sense of style and place that elevates it above just another run-of-the-mill movie adaptation for the musical theater stage. Their performance of the Act Two opening number, "Buddy's Place," is worth the price of a ticket, and "Dance to My Own Drummer" and "Everything You've Ever Learned is Wrong" are high-energy numbers you'll want to see again and again.

Should you go see The Nutty Professor? Without a doubt. You'll want to tell the story of being on-hand for the start of a Broadway fable that has its roots in Music City USA.

  • The Nutty Professor, The New Musical. Music by Marvin Hamlisch. Book and lyrics by Rupert Holmes. Directed by Jerry Lewis. Choreographed by JoAnn M. Hunter. Music supervision and vocal arrangements by Todd Ellison. Presented by Loud Watch Productions LLC, Southern Stage Productions, Inc. and The Private Client Reserve of U.S. Bank. At Tennessee Performing Arts Center's James K. Polk Theatre, Nashville. Through August 19. For details, go to www.nuttyprofessormusical.com. For reservations, call (615) 782-4040.

 photo credit: Rick Malkin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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