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Review - No, No, Nanette: The Happy Time

Arriving on Broadway six years after La, La, Lucille, followed-up by Yes, Yes, Yvette and inspiring Betty Comden and Adolph Green to imagine a musical named If, If, Iphigenia, No, No, Nanette is the kind of delectably frothy musical comedy confection you might not naturally associate with being the stuff of legends. And yet, quite a bit about this high-spirited romp, now getting a lovingly stylish concert reading from Encores!, has achieved legendary status.

The most legendary legend concerning Nanette is, of course, the one that isn't true. Sort of. Because although its very unlikely that a cent of the $125,000 (plus a $300,000 loan) that Broadway producer and Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee collected from selling rising star, disciplinary headache and contractual holdout Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in October of 1919 went into a musical that didn't hit Broadway until 1925, it's very likely some of the cash helped finance his Broadway production of Emil Nyitray and Frank Mandel's farce My Lady Friends, which opened that December and had a healthy seven-month run, inspiring Frazee to turn that property into a musical.

Frazee hired, as Cole Porter put it, gifted humans like Vincent Youmans (music), Irving Caesar (lyrics) and Otto Harbach (book and lyrics) to join Mandel (book) in adapting his play about a philanthropic Bible publisher extorted for money by three gold-diggers after innocently helping them financially. The score included the popular hit "I Want To Be Happy," that legendary gift to soft-shoe dancers everywhere, "Tea For Two," and a terrific assortment of lesser-known gems like the exuberantly rhythmic "Call Of The Sea" and the effortlessly light ballad, "I've Confessed To The Breeze (I Love You)."

Although the musical theatre historian in me would have loved to see director Walter Bobbie stage the original 1925 script and score, which Frazee directed himself, it's understandable why Encores! instead opted for the revised version that opened on Broadway in 1971, which starred Ruby Keeler and achieved a sort of legendary status through Don Dunn's juicy page-turner, The Making of No, No, Nanette, which chronicled the underhanded off-stage dealings and various abrupt firings involved in reviving the show as a nostalgia piece that traded spoof appeal for simple elegance. Burt Shevelove's revised book (adapted here by David Ives) cut a few numbers like the opening, "Flappers Are We," but it's lean, quick and funny. The orchestrations by Ralph Burns and Luther Henderson, featuring twin pianos, eschews the traditional 1920's sound in favor of dreamlike arrangements full of lush romanticism, snazzy rhythms and grandiose flourishes. The music floats gracefully from the thirty piece orchestra, working under the baton of music director Rob Fisher, especially during the extended dance sequences where choreographer Randy Skinner creates the most exciting moments of the night, building tap and Charleston routines into frenzied celebrations while expressing the simplicity of "Tea For Two" as romantic dance poetry.

Scenic consultant John Lee Beatty frames the onstage musicians in a white lace proscenium, which Ken Billington lights in lovely soft pastels. Costume designer Gregg Barnes fashions the first act, set in New York, with plenty of black and white, switching to cheery multicolored pastels for the second act's beachside scenes and has the company looking swell in their period evening wear by the finale.

The silly and complicated plot begins at the Manhattan home of three-quarters-of-a-millionaire, Jimmy Smith (Charles Kimbrough, all wonderfully befuddled innocence) who, despite being utterly devoted to his wife Sue (Sandy Duncan, who can still floor an audience with her corn-fed charm and joyful dancing), can't help coming to the financial aid of pretty young ladies in distress. When three of his lovely beneficiaries (Jen Cody as a red-hot, belty flapper, Nancy Anderson as an operatic conservatory lass and Angel Reda as a blonde bombshell) threaten to expose him as a sugar daddy if they don't get a big payoff, Jimmy's hot-shot lawyer Billy (Michael Berresse, bursting with slick song and dance charisma) is on the case. But when Billy's shopaholic wife Lucille (the drippingly droll Beth Leavel) suspects him as the real philanderer, there's nothing left for her to do but stand tall, look fabulous and stop the show cold by lending her fluttery expressive vocals to "The Where-Has-My-Hubby-Gone Blues."

And who is this Nanette and why do people keep saying no to her? She's the orphaned niece of Jimmy and Sue, who, although in love with legal assistant Tom rejects his marriage proposal because she wants to live a little before settling down. Mara Davi and Shonn Wiley play their romance with straight-faced earnestness, singing beautifully and making a charming dance team. Rosie O'Donnell lands her jokes nicely in the non-singing role of Pauline the maid (the character did have a comic solo in '25) and even gets to flash some admirable tapping.

By the way, with this production Sandy Duncan uses her program bio to announce to the world that she does not, in fact, have a glass eye. Once again, No, No, Nanette is associated with a famous legend.

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From This Author Kristin Salaky