Santa Monica’s venerable Morgan-Wixson Theater once again redefines “community theater” with its latest big-stage musical revival, Crazy For You, the Tony-winning Best Musical of 1992, directed with assurance and pizzazz by Anne Gesling.
Taking as its inspiration 1930’s Girl Crazy, Crazy For You retains that show’s Out West setting and Broadway Showgirl chorus line along with the best known of its George and Ira Gershwin songs, including “Bidin’ My Time,” “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm,” and “But Not For Me,” adding to them “Someone To Watch Over Me” (from Oh, Kay!), “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” (from Shall We Dance), and “Nice Work If You Can Get It” (from Damsel In Distress). With its “Best Of George And Ira” score and Ken (Lend Me A Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo, Leading Ladies) Ludwig’s puntastic book, one which pays tribute to (and pokes affectionate fun at) the plot-thin pre-Oklahoma! storylines of the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, Crazy For You more than lives up to its Broadway billing as “The New Gershwin Musical Comedy.” Add to that some of the most thrilling tap numbers since 42nd Street, originally choreographed by Susan Stroman, and you’ve got a musical treat for young and old alike.
Ludwig’s book introduces us to banking heir Bobby Child (Peter Schueller), a dashing young man who wants nothing more than to escape the clutches of his imperious mother Lottie (Susan Stangl) and longtime fiancée Irene (Danielle Morris) the better to star in a Broadway Show, particularly one produced by impresario Bela Zangler (Steve Hall) of Zangler Follies fame. Unfortunately, the Florenz Ziegfeld stand-in is too preoccupied with business to pay even the slightest attention to Bobby’s enthusiastic audition, leaving our hero no choice but to accede to his mother’s latest demand, that he head Out West to Deadrock, Nevada and foreclose on the ghost town’s once flourishing Gaiety Theater.
Arriving plumb tuckered out in Deadrock, Bobby is greeted by the town’s half-dozen remaining cowpokes, who have nothing better to do than bide their time singing “Bidin’ My Time.” Deadrock’s population of eight is completed by elderly Gaiety owner Everett Baker (Alan Charof) and his feisty daughter Polly (Krystal Jasmin Combs), the only woman left in this nearly abandoned coal-mining town.
Though it’s love at first sight for Bobby, the peppy blonde takes an instant dislike to the handsome New Yorker, whom she has vowed to get even with for coming to repossess her pop’s prize possession, the theater where his beloved wife (and Polly’s late mother) once ruled the stage. In fact, Polly finds the sight of Bobby Child so disagreeable that she refuses to even consider his master plan—to put on a show which will net enough cash to save the Gaiety from foreclosure.
Torn between his mother’s orders to foreclose and his desire to win Polly’s heart by hook or by crook, Bobby comes up with the perfect solution—to don wig and goatee and impersonate Zangler, figuring quite rightly that Polly will be more than willing to have the Broadway big-shot produce and direct the show—that is if the town’s cowboys can learn to tap as show-stoppingly as the chorus girls Bobby has already brought to Deadrock to assist him in his plan.
Fortunately for Bobby, Polly falls head over heels for him in Zangler garb. Unfortunately for Bobby, she still can’t stand the sight of Bobby as himself.
While Ludwig’s Tony-nominated book isn’t nearly as inspired as the 42nd Street-spoofing one George Haimsohn and Robin Miller wrote for Dames At Sea, it does score considerable points for its pun-heavy humor (“You’re next to an idiot!”) and the way it manages in classic jukebox musical fashion to find ways to integrate a dozen and a half Gershwin tunes into its wisp of a plot.
Ultimately, however, Crazy For You is all about the songs, the dances, and the performances, and in all three respects, the Morgan-Wixson scores a bull’s-eye.
As Bobby, Downey CLO regular Schueller gets his biggest, most challenging role to date, and acts, sings, and dances it in true triple-threat fashion. Not only does Schueller nail tap number after tap number, he is as charmingly engaging a Bobby as they come, a hilarious pseudo-Zangler, and a terrific tenor to boot.
Following leading roles in the Morgan-Wixson’s Thoroughly Modern Millie and last year’s Chicago, Combs makes it three stellar performances in a row with her spunky romantic comedy turn as Polly, the rip-roaringest cowgal since Annie got her gun. Add to that terrific vocal chops, the better to belt out the best of the Gershwins in down-tempo mode, and footwork that would do Ruby and Ginger proud, and you’ve got another memorable star turn from the Morgan-Wixson’s secret weapon.
Supporting Schueller and Combs are an all-around splendid bunch of featured performers. Hall is a hoot as Broadway big shot Zangler, and never more so than in an inspired comedic turn opposite Schueller’s mirror-image “Bella,” a sequence reminiscent of the time Lucy Ricardo met Harpo Marx on I Love Lucy. Stangl and Morris have great fun as hoity-toity mother and daughter, the latter duetting a delightful “Naughty Baby” opposite Morley, once again a standout as Lank. Veteran character actor Charof makes for a loveable old coot of an Everett Baker, while the delightful duo of Marc Ostroff and Shaina Zalma Ostroff poke affectionate fun at as the dressed-for-a-safari Eugene and Patricia Fodor, leading the ensemble in the appropriately named “Stiff Upper Lip.” (The Ostroffs double in early sequences as cowboy Billy and showgirl Vera.)
Then there’s the ensemble of Follies Girls (Michelle Akeley as Tess, Lauren Blair as Margie, Holly Childers as Mitzi, Eileen Cherry O’Donnell as Patsy, and Laura Wennstrom Sheehan as Louise) and Cowboys (Roy T. Okida as Mingo, Alex Pierdant as Wyatt, Jack Robert Riordan as Custus, Chris Siciliano as Moose, and Steve Weber as Sam), some of whom are Musical Theater BFA grads, others of whom had never tapped in their lives before Crazy For You, and all of whom dazzle in one precision tap number after another, in addition to acting and singing their roles like pros.
Wearing her choreographer hat, Combs proves that last year’s Scenie as Quadruple Threat Of The Year was no fluke, not only recreating Crazy For You’s most memorable song-and-dance sequences, with “Slap That Bass” and the eight-minute non-stop high-energy “I Got Rhythm” proving the two most memorable of the bunch, but whipping her talented dance ensemble into terrific shape.
Music director Gesling coaxes top-notch vocal performances from the entire cast, who perform refreshingly without the aid of mikes to prerecorded tracks, played at just the right volume by sound designer Bob Moreno. Gesling’s costumes are colorful winners too.
Only in certain technical and design aspects does Crazy For You reveal its community theater status, albeit high-end community theater to be sure. Set designer-technical director Thomas A. Brown makes the most of a limited budget in a modular set which gives us Crazy For You’s many locals thanks to imaginative design, a few projected backdrops, and some very hard-working cast members doubling as stage hands. William Wilday’s lighting design does the trick as well.
Crazy For You is produced by Meredith Wright. Louis Ebert is stage manager.
The Morgan-Wixson Theatre has been providing West Side audiences with quality entertainment since 1946, and Crazy For You proves to be one of their best musicals to date. No longer merely a place for amateur thespians to “put on a show” after their 9-to-5’s, the Morgan-Wixson now draws on the same rich pool of Southern California talent to cast its productions as do our multitude of intimate theaters—and it shows in offerings as splendid as Crazy For You. With All The King’s Men, Plaza Suite, Avenue Q, What The Butler Saw, and Spamalot promising one of the Morgan-Wixon’s most exciting upcoming seasons ever, Crazy For You closes 2011-12 on a high note indeed.
Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica.
July 7, 2012
Photo credit: Joel Castro