Chicago Theater Review: NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (Theatre at the Center in Munster, IN)

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by Lawrence Bommer on May 9, 2016

in Theater-Chicago,Theater-Regional


George Gershwin died no older than the equally immortal Mozart—and, well, we can’t make or get enough of a Broadway blessing’s too-brief talent for tunes. The sturdy songs from his silly shows have been recently repurposed in Crazy for You, My One and Only, An American in Paris and, in 2012, Nice Work If You Can Get It. A Chicagoland premiere at Theater at the Center in Munster, Indiana, the last now enjoys a charm-laden staging by wizards William Pullinsi and Danny Herman.

NiceWork A NiceWork B

Thanks to the Gershwin brothers’ showbiz savvy, this happy trove delivers the right excuse for a paper-thin plot. Joe DiPietro’s book is clearly inspired by earlier fluff from laffmeisters Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse. We get a heaping harvest of industrial-strength whimsy, Jazz Age stereotypes, and a very old-school story about opposites attracting enough to deliver wonders such as “Someone To Watch Over Me,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” and “’S Wonderful.”

NiceWork C NiceWork D

With a Roaring Twenties/Prohibition Era backdrop, the folderol ranges from a Gotham speakeasy to the Brooklyn docks to a ritzy beach house on Long Island, all barely but efficiently indicated by Richard and Jacqueline Penrod’s flying scenery. The trivial tale details the unlikely romance between Jimmy Winter, an oft-married party boy with more money than mind, and Billie Bendix, a tomboy-rough bootlegger who uses Jimmy’s supposedly unoccupied seaside manse to hide 401 crates of hot hooch. No question, “giggle juice” is the rotgut of choice, the “sweet and lowdown” in this intoxicating, vaudevillian, 155-minute tomfoolery.

NiceWork E NiceWork F

DiPietro seamlessly integrates the Gershwin standards into the cornball action, pretty much restoring the lyrics to their emotional context. He then sets up a clever “fish out of water” collision/collusion between Billie and her rum-running crew and Jimmy and his society swells and chorine flappers, depicting assorted mistaken identities and the clumsy concealment of hole-filling secrets. Anyway the songs call the shots, especially when they’re the lovely like of the title number, as well as obscure delights like “Demon Rum” an anti-ode to bathtub gin.

NiceWork G NiceWork H

Happily, the right character actors earn their nostalgia: The notes, impeccably shaped by music director Bill Underwood and set to scorching steps by Danny Herman, do the rest. Though a bit long in the tooth as lounge lizard Jimmy, Justin Brill mugs up a storm in infectious ditties like “I’ve Got To Be There” or hoofing it up with goodtime girls who love to toss beach balls and bump and grind in all directions. A marvel of tough love and sobering survival sense, Erica Stephan’s smart and sassy Billie poses as both an honor student from Harvard and a saucy Cockney maid, faking it well in “Treat Me Rough,” cavorting to “Hangin’ Around With You,” and playing it straight in the heartbreaker ballad “But Not For Me.” As Jimmy’s threatening femme-fatale fiancée, a modern-dance diva with more sequins than sense, Julie Baird flounces up a sudden Ziegfeld spectacle in the bath song “Delishious.” Astutely hilarious, Stef Tovar is a deadpan delight as Cookie McGee, a gangster awkwardly posing as a butler who, of course, falls for his diametrical opposite, a horny duchess (“Looking for a Boy”).

NiceWork I NiceWork J

The subplots don’t suffer: Annelise Baker is sweetly simple as an airhead soubrette in love with John Stemberg’s dumbass Duke, a goon she takes for a real Duke who will make her Queen of England. (“Do It Again” is her calling-card mating dance.) Continuing the clichés, Laura Freeman simpers as Estonia Dulworth, Duchess of Woodford: This zany aristocrat is Elena’s addlepated aunt, a Carrie Nation-like temperance warrior who heads the Society of Dry Women. (Her big novelty number is “By Strauss,” a comic clash of waltzes against swing, performed with Tovar’s rubber-faced, tap-dancing Cookie.) For yucks galore DiPieto also throws in a matchmaking police chief (Jake Stempel), a pompous senator/reverend/judge (Rick Rapp), and his once and future soulmate, Jimmy’s dubious mother Mllicent (Debbie DiVerde).

NiceWork K NiceWork L

By this trifle’s very American end, the manufactured mayhem is settled in a sardonic resolution. Assorted crack-brained revelations happily level the playing field between thugs and toffs, necessary evil and unearned snobbery. It all kind of clicks: This spring fling really is nice work if you can see it.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Nice Work If You Can Get It
Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana
ends on June 5, 2016
for tickets, call 219.836.3255 or visit
for more info, visit Theatre at the Center

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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