While the Encores! series at New York City Center is justly renowned for mounting treasures from the dusty vaults of old Broadway, not every production need be ready for a full scale Broadway revival a la Chicago or last season’s Violet. One of the great pleasures of Encores! is discovering that the so-called classics could be just as sloppy and imperfect as any of today’s short-term hits.
Encores!’ new production is a bit of fizzy folderol from 1924 called Lady, Be Good! that became the first big hit for George and Ira Gershwin on the Main Stem. (It runs through Feb. 8 at New York City Center.) There are some lovely songs in it, including one bona fine classic (“Fascinating Rhythm”) whose virtues must have been recognized early on because it is shamelessly reprised twice in the second act. But there’s also a good deal of musical filler, including genre numbers about a yodeling Swiss miss and a Mexican señorita, that could have been lifted from any number of vaudeville acts of the era.
And the book — well, the book, by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson, is a frankly nonsensical mishmash of romantic tropes that makes dumb modern sitcoms like Hot in Cleveland seem positively Shakespearean in comparison. We meet a brother and sister, dancers who’ve just been evicted from their apartment (and originally played by real-life sibling act Fred and Adele Astaire). So Dick Trevor (winsome Danny Gardner) resolves to marry an heiress (Jennifer Laura Thompson) even though he’s really in love with a similarly penniless gal (Erin Mackey). His sister, Susie (Lysistrata Jones‘ Patti Murin, sweet-voiced and spunky), embarks on her own money-making scheme, posing as a Mexican widow for a shady lawyer (an unapologetically hammy Douglas Sills) while making eyes at a handsome chap who claims to be a hobo (Arrow alum Colin Donnell). A hobo who wears tails.
The pileup of mismatched couples and mistaken identities builds to a five-wedding finale that ought to have included dual pianists Chris Fenwick and Greg Anthony, standouts in the City Center’s 30-member orchestra (under the expert baton of Rob Fisher). It’s all incredibly silly, but director Mark Brokaw keeps the pace as brisk as the punchlines are corny. And Randy Skinner’s choreography nods to the period — there’s a number called “I’d Rather Charleston,” after all — while still seeming fresh.
The biggest ace up this Lady‘s sequined sleeve is Tommy Tune, returning to the New York stage after a decade-long absence in a role billed only as the Professor which has not even a nominal connection to the plot. (Appearing for his elegant second solo routine, “Jazz Bird,” he says by way of introduction, “I’m here for my second act specialty.”) At 75, the nine-time Tony winner still boasts his famously tall and lithe frame and a megawatt smile that makes spotlights superfluous. And while he may not kick as high as he once did, his dancing is remarkably spirited. More importantly, he has presence. He somehow seems both more grounded and lighter on his feet than the more youthful hoofers backing him up on his first act showstopper, “Fascinating Rhythm.” It’s an old-fashioned star turn, the stuff of old Broadway (and even older vaudeville). And now, happily, it’s also the highlight of Encore’s latest delightfully dated confection.