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BWW Reviews: Encores! Mounts LADY, BE GOOD! With Style and Panache


It's rather appropriate that Tommy Tune is the headlining star of the nifty Encores! concert revival of Lady, Be Good!, as it was his My One And Only - 1983's "new" Gershwin musical that began as a revamped version of Funny Face - that started the trend of trying to whip the early George and Ira efforts into something resembling better structured musical comedy with scores padded with more familiar hits.

Tommy Tune (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Thus we have Girl Crazy transformed into Crazy For You and Oh, Kay! reinvented as Nice Work If You Can Get It.

And that's one of the reasons why what's happening at City Center this weekend seems so fresh and, believe it or not, original. Artistic director Jack Viertel may have done some tinkering with Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson's 1924 book (taken from a stage manager's copy), but there's no attempt to make sense of it all. This was an era when producers would sign stars, hire songwriters and just tell the bookwriters to figure out how to use them by opening night, so when a star is conveniently left alone on stage to start a tap routine or when the lead pair suddenly starts yodeling a Swiss number or when the orchestra's two pianists (Chris Fenwick and Greg Anthony) are called up to do a specialty duet, there is no explanation asked for or given.

It's because director Mark Brokaw embraces the musical's peculiarities so well, and because the material is so divinely stylish (It takes brilliance to come up with a lyric like, "I got those 'You don't know the half of it, dearie' blues."), that this bare-bones concert rendering of Lady, Be Good! has an exciting air of authenticity about it.

The show was originally scripted for the brother/sister team of Fred and Adele Astaire, requiring the authors to come up with a plot that didn't cast their stars as a romantic couple. As song and dance siblings Dick and Susie Trevor, the show opens with them being evicted from their home for being a mere 18 months behind on the rent. Despite being in love with a nice, but equally poor girl, Dick decides he'll marry the wealthy woman who has the hots for him in order to save his sis from living in the streets. Susie won't have any of that and seeks out a way to make money so that her brother can marry for love. Somehow or another, this plot finds an awful lot of excuses for having the two of them dance.

Adele was considered the star of the team, so from her terrific entrance to the final clinch, Susie gets the funnier lines, goofier antics and more exuberant songs. Patti Murin seems to be having a blast in the role, dancing a wild Charleston, impersonating a Mexican senora and dueting the score's loveliest ballad, "So Am I," with Colin Donnell, who plays a hobo who, you might guess, really isn't as poor as he looks. Murin's enthusiasm is infectious and highly entertaining.

Patti Murin and Danny Gardner (Photo: Carol Rosegg)

Danny Gardner, who has a fine musical theatre voice and appealing sincerity, plays it straight as Dick, but his second act tap solo is full of marvelous elegance and rapid-fire footwork.

Slick and dapper Douglas Sills nails his gag lines and sings with brio as a shyster lawyer wanting to marry the society dame who has her eye on Dick (a haughty Jennifer Laura Thompson). The exceedingly bubbly Kirsten Wyatt and the fumbling Jeff Hiller are also great fun as a comical romantic pair.

As for Tommy Tune, he plays a role created in '24 by the popular singer Cliff Edwards, better known as Ukulele Ike. Playing an entertainer at a swanky party, Ike, who wasn't a dancer, partook in the show's best known song "Fascinating Rhythm," and returned in the second half to sing and strum "Little Jazz Bird" before launching into a trio of non-Gershwin songs from his act.

Tune eschews the non-Gershwin tunes, the uke and the entire company as he tap solos to "Fascinating Rhythm" in act one. His tempo may have slowed down a bit with the years, but the man drips with panache as he uses his angular body, sunny smile and mellow drawl to playfully charm the patrons. He eventually gives the stage over to the chorus and they respond with a spectacular display of synchronization, choreographed with period flair by Randy Skinner.

The Broadway legend then disappears until the evening is nearly done and, for no good reason except that it's time for his second act specialty, he returns for a sweet rendering of "Little Jazz Bird," a number he sang in My One And Only until it was cut in Boston.

The complete original orchestrations for Lady, Be Good are long gone, but the 30 piece orchestra, conducted by Rob Fisher, plays a handful of the '24 creations by Paul Lannin, Robert Russell Bennett, Charles Grant, Stephen Jones and Max Steiner. Bill Elliot's new orchestrations blend in beautifully.

New Gershwin musicals are fun, but Encores! proves that keeping the old ones as they were ain't such a bad idea.

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