By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“They kept me late at the bank but I’ve got my tap shoes on!” cries Bobby Child, a young man with a distinct career malfunction, at the start of Crazy For You.
Words to live by, it turns out — nay, a veritable existential position — in the twinkling firmament of the 30s-style musical comedy now lifting spirits, yours included, to joyous heights at the Citadel. As one of the musical’s dazzling string of Gershwin hits (Shall We Dance?) sagely advises, “put on your dancing shoes, and watch your spirits climb.” Isn’t that a lot wiser than any counsel you’ve gotten lately from a banker?
The evening of Crazy-ness is powered by the irresistible Gershwin songbook and the unfailing exuberance of director/choreographer Dayna Tekatch and her cast of 22 in rising to it. And it’s devoted to the kind of dreams that are a specialty of the American musical theatre. In the course of it, starry-eyed Bobby (the wonderful Andrew MacDonald-Smith, coming full into his own as a star) will release his inner leading man from the chains of the bank ledger. And this he will do the classic Broadway way: he will fall in love, and he will save the very theatre he was sent from New York City to dusty Deadrock, Nevada to foreclose — by putting on a show.
Not only that, these transformations will prove contagious. A gaggle of cowboy layabouts who have occupied themselves Biding Their Time will reinvent themselves as song-and-dance men. They’ll find themselves in striped tights rehearsing for a show. They’ll form improv bands armed with washboards and brooms. They will fall in love with New York showgirls who fling a leg up up and away towards a shoulder on the least provocation. Snooty New York socialites will shed their fur stoles and kick up their (high) heels. And a tough-cookie tomboy cowboy-town post office proprietor (Ayrin Mackie) who secretly dreams of Someone To Watch Over Me will find one, unexpectedly — in a Manhattan rich kid with tap shoes in his luggage.
In short a town, and everyone in it, will be reborn when a derelict theatre starts hoppin’: civic branding strategy at its finest, ladies and gentlemen.
But I digress. As the eminent New York producer Bela Zangler (riotously played by John Ullyatt) puts it, “we have a show to put on here!”
Highly compatible time-honoured showbiz motifs of transformation — the joint redemptive lure of falling in love and of the theatre itself — do their magic in the book by playwright Ken Ludwig, of Lend Me A Tenor fame. When your biggest problem as a librettist is how to enfold such marvels as Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm and Someone To Watch Over Me into the fabric of your play, some would say ‘cry me a river Ken’. But Ludwig reclaims old-school comedy alongside great songs co-opted long ago as jazz standards with such imagination and savvy you never notice the fault lines.
A 1992 musical comedy that looks and feels like the 1930 one (Girl Crazy) that spawned five of its eighteen Gershwin numbers, Crazy For You is an homage, playful and affectionate, to the old Broadway. The moss-covered jokes are on loan from vaudeville. “He will go to Deadrock over my dead body!” snaps Bobby’s rich and imperious fiancee Irene (Rachel Bowron), in perpetual battle with Bobby’s rich and imperious mama (Susan Gilmour). “That sounds like an excellent route!” declares the latter grandly. “The guest list is up to 900!” says Irene by way of inserting the concept or wedding into the conversation with her reluctant fiancé. “Great!” says Bobby, forever agile in avoidance, “you won’t miss me!”
But there are more contemporary theatre jokes too, including a scene I won’t spoil for you, involving unexpectedly learned contributions from a cowboy who apparently wouldn’t know stage right from a stage coach.
Every kind of dance, from Busby Berkeley rotating chorus lines to Charlestons, jazzy riffs to Fred and Ginger waltzes, to pratfall acrobatics and near-misses to soft-shoe and escalating tap routines are referenced in Tekatch’s choreography. I Got Rhythm, the Act I closer, is a wild melee of every kind of dance. Naughty Baby is a hilarious sado-machoism tango, performed with gusto by Bowron’s re-born socialite fiancée Irene and her uncouth new beau Lank (the very funny Jesse Gervais). Gervais, who gets more than a few of Ludwig’s cheeky one-liners, lands them unerringly, in full dander-up exasperation mode. “In 2,000 years, there’s only been resurrection, and it wasn’t a theatre.”
Lank was dead wrong on that count. But then he wasn’t counting on designer Cory Sincennes. His inventions pay tribute to the old with the wit of the new, creates a marvellous world, with old-fashioned set pieces that turn, footlights, the front of the Zangler Follies in New York, an entire cobwebbed western vaudeville theatre with a period proscenium — and costumes with sequins and feathered headdresses for days. Sincennes’ work is consistently fun to watch, full of sight gags of its own both shameless and subtle.
Combined with Ludwig’s own stagecraft — Crazy For You is constructed as a series of unexpected entrances and exits, which all count as Moments — the design has got rhythm too.
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect Bobby than MacDonald-Smith, who’s as captivating a triple-threat virtuoso as they come, whether singing, dancing, or clocking off a comic aside, a rueful double-take, or a near-miss with a saloon floorboard. This is someone who knows exactly what to do with a showbiz sport as sublimely giddy as tap: it must never look worked at.
Breezy and easeful as his performance is, the winsome MacDonald-Smith never lets you forget the wonderment of the transformations in Crazy For You. As Polly Baker, the hard-to-win girl of Bobby’s dreams, Ayrin Mackie’s big-voiced authority seems to come at us from the period. And she combines fierceness with reluctant vulnerability in a way that’s always likeable.
The comic roles are zestfully, and inventively, occupied by Gervais, Ullyatt, Bowron, and Gilmour. But, hey, there’s a particularly sparkly chorus, too, of showgirls with an amusing assortment of dweebs and drunks as the burghers of Deadrock. And Don Horsburgh’s orchestra, unusually large for these enterprises at 14 pieces, is deluxe in every way.
We’re in a gloomy period in history, full of dark portents. So the thought that your life might turn around on a dime, or a pirouette, or a feather, seems as appealing as it must have in 1930, when Girl Crazy sprang, with giddy showbiz defiance, to its feet. “Things are looking up,” sings everyone who falls instantly in love in Crazy For You. “It’s a great little world we live in.”
Behave accordingly. Get yourself out of Dodge and into Deadrock, and fall in love. The Citadel deserves a hit with this one.
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, Rachel Bowron, Susan Gilmour
Running: through March 26
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.ca