By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Nice work if you can get it/ And you can get it if you try….”
In Crazy For You, the deluxe ‘30s musical comedy that was actually, amazingly, written in the 1990s, a stagestruck Manhattan rich kid will somehow find himself in a dozy Nevada mining town, putting on a show with a gaggle of New York showgirls, saving a bankrupt theatre. Ah, and getting the girl. And losing and re-getting the girl.
As you will glean, this classic musical comedy to-do list alone would make the starry-eyed character, as per above, a busy man onstage. But then there are the Gershwin songs, some of the most lustrous in the history of the musical theatre. And then since the songs aren’t just sung, there’s the dancing, of every stripe including ecstatic outbursts of tap.
Bobby Child: “It’s the dream role I didn’t know existed!” sighs Andrew MacDonald-Smith, the lanky multi-talented star of Crazy For You, opening Thursday on the Citadel MainStage in a 22-actor 15-musician Dayna Tekatch production. He has a certain vintage style about him, even when he’s sporting runners not tap shoes and a T-shirt from his favourite ramen shop in NYC instead of a tux. “Holy smoke! I didn’t know it was a dream role till I got it!”
“I fall down! I get to do the physical comedy stuff I love to do! I get to be really challenged with difficult choreography!” says MacDonald-Smith, arriving foot-weary from rehearsal last week along with his cast-mate and real-life partner Rachel Bowron.“Bobby disguises himself at one point, very funny, so I get to be someone else for a while as well as the leading man! AND I get to fall in love onstage.”
All of which makes the role of Bobby Child nice work if you can get it, as MacDonald-Smith cheerfully acknowledges. “The really fun character part and the love interest don’t tend to go hand in hand,” he grins. “You just don’t get both. Not normally.”
Normally? There is nothing normal about the 1992 musical concocted by the master farceur Ken Ludwig (Lend Me A Tenor). Crazy For You reclaims the glorious bounty of 18 Gershwin hits — only five of which came from the 1930 Gershwin hit Girl Crazy that is, very fractionally, its source — into its tale of showbiz, cowboys, Follies girls, joyous romance. “I guess you could look at it as a jukebox musical, but it sure doesn’t seem that way,” says MacDonald-Smith. “It seems perfectly like it was written in the ‘30s, with an updated contemporary sense of humour.”
This suits MacDonald-Smith just fine. For one thing, “my voice seems to live most comfortably in that era,” he says of Gershwin and that crowd. He culled largely from that gleaming repertoire last month for his cabaret in the Citadel Club, You’re Never Fully Dressed Without A Band (with Don Berner’s Big Band, and guest appearances by Bowron and Crazy For You assistant director Farren Timoteo). From Crazy For You, he borrowed Slap That Bass, along with songs by Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, and others.
“Anything where I get to wear pleated pants,” jokes the leading man. “Hey! In Pleated Pants is a good name for another cabaret, a follow-up!” laughs Bowron, who plays Bobby’s high-maintenance New York socialite fiancée Irene Roth in an impossible succession of hats, gloves, and fur coats, all hilariously out of place in Deadrock, Nevada.
“It’s a troubled relationship,” grins Bowron who, like MacDonald-Smith, is a Teatro La Quindicina star. “Irene is quite a difficult fiancée….” The pair, who haven’t been onstage together since they clutched puppets in Avenue Q at the Citadel, laugh. “Yeah, she’s under the impression we’ve been engaged for five years. And I’m not!” grins MacDonald-Smith.
In Ludwig’s book, the moment Bobby arrives in Deadrock, he falls for Polly Baker (Ayrin Mackie), the local postmistress whose dad is the mortgage holder on the Gaiety Theatre Bobby’s mother has sent him to close. Complications accelerate.
“Such a brilliant book!” says director/choreographer Tekatch. “A great story about love at first sight. There are possibilities around every corner; everybody has a transformation. Each person has that possibility. Romance, after all, is all about accepting risk, taking a chance.”
MacDonald-Smith echoes the thought. “Every character is hilarious. The cowboys and showgirls in the ensemble have fully formed characters. They’re not generic; they’re specific characters…. It’s a real ensemble of people; there isn’t that conventional distinction between ‘characters’ and chorus.
If you saw MacDonald-Smith either in his irresistible award-winning turn as chimney sweep Bert in Mary Poppins, or as an ancient and rickety waiter nearly falling down stairs again and again, in One Man Two Guvnors, you’ll already know something about his rarefied dance skills. With its choreographic responsiveness to I’ve Got Rhythm, Embraceable You, and the rest of its memorable Gershwin song list, is a veritable dance extravaganza.
“Dancing may “make my troubles all seem tiny,” to borrow a line from I Can’t Be Bothered Now. But if it involves tap shoes, your joints take a helluva pounding. The tall lithe MacDonald, who has a tap number with six women amongst his manifold assignments, looks ruefully down at his sneakers. “I’m burning it off, boy oh boy. These puppies are tired.”
“Vaudeville, tap, ballroom, jazz …” says Bowron, who’s petite and vivacious. “I get lifted a lot in Naughty Baby (Irene’s big number). Which is thrilling to me!” Her partner, and target, is played by Jesse Gervais who is, she says, “a dancer, and an incredible athlete, so graceful and strong. He can just throw himself into it!”
“It’s more of a character duet than an actual dance….” That, says Bowron, is one of Tekatch’s great gifts, “how to tell the story through character movement…. There’s a bit of flamenco in it; there are body rolls. That’s who Irene is….”
“The music is first,” says Tekatch of her choreographic impulses to interpret the orchestrations. She cites reports that “Gershwin played as if he had six hands.”
“There are so many feels to the music. It may feel like a tango in the middle of a foxtrot, a waltz in the middle of something different…. And there’s no separation of character and story, there’s a continuity.
Tekatch, who storyboards all the numbers she choreographs, explains that the average big dance number in a musical might be three or four minutes long. I Got Rhythm, that Act II showstopper, is eight, “the longest number I’ve choreographed in my life!”
In the course of eight minutes there are kicklines, and Charlie Chaplin riffs, there’s a cowboy trio. And of course there’s tap, a skill that’s by no means universal amongst triple-threats these days. Tekatch loves tap; she’s put it in other numbers, too, like Stiff Upper Lip.
“This,” sighs MacDonald-Smith happily, “is a show with big number after big number, eight of them in the show tied together with a book that doesn’t make it look like eight big hits tied together.…”
“The show is joy, hope, fun, a wonderful escape from the world,” says Bowron. In a period when the world seems to be plummeting depressingly into chaos, “it’s perfectly timed. The show is joy, hope, fun, a wonderful escape from the world,” says Bowron. “That’s why the musicals of the ′30s are so indelible. When times are tough, give us a mistaken identity musical farce, please!”
MacDonald-Smith and Bowron may have disagreed at the outset about their golden-age-of-musicals idols. MacDonald-Smith declares, firmly, for Fred Astaire. Bowron confesses “a huge crush on Gene Kelly.” This is a classic musical theatre nerd argument. But they came together over Donald O’Connor. “That’s why we’re together,” grins MacDonald-Smith.
He and Bowron will be onstage together again this summer, in Teatro La Quindicina’s premiere production of a new Jana O’Connor screwball Going Going Gone. Meanwhile, they go home to their Strathcona loft every night with glorious Gershwin ringing in their heads. And when you have an entire orchestra and choreography in your head, “you just have to stand up and do it!” says MacDonald-Smith.
Dancing in a loft to the music of Gershwin sounds like the ne plus ultra of romance. Gershwin fandom isn’t universal, though. “Our cats don’t love our dancing,” laughs Bowron. “They end up in the chair….”
Crazy For You: “the new Gershwin musical”
Theatre: Citadel / Theatre Calgary
Directed by: Dayna Tekatch
Starring: Andrew MacDonald-Smith, Ayrin Mackie, John Ullyatt, Jesse Gervais, Larry Herbert, Rachel Bowron, Susan Gilmour
Running: through March 26
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadelheatre.ca