Without question, George and Ira Gershwin were two of American musical comedy's most brilliant tune-meisters, and in the 1990s, playwright Ken Ludwig got the bright idea of creating a "new" Gershwin musical. Taking familiar '30s plot elements, he crafted a knowing, affectionate book that both satirizes and pays homage to the musical-comedy genre. And then he grabbed fistfuls of those bloodstream-quickening Gershwin songs -- familiar numbers like "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Nice Work If You Can Get It," "I Got Rhythm," "Embraceable You" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me" (if you're not humming by now, you should be), as well as wonderful discoveries such as "Slap That Bass," "Bidin' My Time" and "What Causes That" -- and scattered them like jewels along the story's path.
The plot is thin but warmhearted. Bobby Child is heir to a banking fortune; his ambitious mother wants him to marry the snooty Irene and take over the family business -- but all Bobby wants to do is dance. Sent to Deadrock, Nevada, to foreclose on a property, he discovers that it's a beloved old theater, owned by the sweetly nostalgic Everett Baker. Needless to say, Baker has a pretty daughter, Polly, who has never performed in her life but has all kinds of latent talent just waiting to be coaxed into the open by a lovestruck Bobby. In true Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney style, the couple decides to save the theater by putting on a show, which requires awakening the lackadaisical cowboys of Deadrock to the effervescent joys of music and dance. There are complications, of course, including saloon owner Lank Hawkins's desire for Polly and the appearance in Deadrock of impresario Bela Zangler -- a nod by Ludwig to the legendary Florenz Ziegfeld. And there's also a bit of identity confusion.
Artistic director Michael J. Duran danced in the critically praised 1992 Broadway production of Crazy for You, and he re-creates some of Susan Stroman's choreographic magic here, including the long number that ends the first act and features all kinds of inventive movement using axes, hammers and human bodies as musical instruments. Duran himself, wearing an adorably absurd beret, does some mean tapping in the chorus.
When Duran took over the theater a couple of years ago, he retained almost the entire company, bringing in new faces for specific parts. As a result, we not only feel we know the people on stage, but we feel a sense of ownership, since we've seen them grow and change as performers over the years. So as we watch Wayne Kennedy's appealingly fuddled Everett Baker, we remember his robust Billy Bigelow of a few years back and the doomed Jewish grocer he played in Cabaret. Shelly Cox-Robie, wearing a crimson dress, gleefully vamps her way through "Naughty Baby" -- while behind her are the shadows of innocent Kathy in Singing in the Rain and Carousel's long-suffering Julie. Joanie Brosseau-Beyette, the lead in Sweet Charity a couple of weeks ago, is now kicking in the chorus, and Brian Norber has abandoned the face-splitting grin of The Music Man's Harold Hill to play the taciturn, drawling cowboy, Custus.
Scott Beyette is a lithe, leaping, tapping wonder as Bobby, and his extended mime sequence with A.K. Klimpke's Zangler is the best work he's done. Alicia Dunfee is an unexpected ingenue, perhaps a bit too experienced for Polly and less light on her feet than partner Beyette, but she brings her customary warmth and presence to the role. John Scott Clough is funny but over the top as Lank, with some moves a touch too reminiscent of John Cleese's tantrums in Fawlty Towers. And the theater's five-person orchestra is exuberant, as always.
I saw this show at the Arvada Center a few years ago, when both cast and budget were bigger, the costumes flashier and the dancing more lithe. I loved that production, too, but it was an entirely different experience, one that invited you to sit back and be dazzled. These Boulder performers sing and act as well as their Arvada counterparts (in some cases better), and their enthusiasm simply sweeps you into the fun.