Downey Civic Light Opera opens its 2012-13 season with one of its strongest productions in recent years, Crazy For You, the Tony-winning Best Musical of 1992. Winning lead performances by Mishi Schueller and Andrea Dodson, a bunch of terrific supporting turns, and some of the best dancing I’ve seen on the Downey Theatre stage make this a worthy follow-up to last spring’s excellent The Pajama Game.
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 (Schueller), a dashing young man who wants nothing more than to escape the clutches of his imperious mother Lottie (Heather Blades) and longtime fiancée Irene (Charlotte Carpenter) the better to star in a Broadway Show, particularly one produced by impresario Bela Zangler (William T. Lewis) 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 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 Gaiety owner Everett Baker (Nick Menecola) and his feisty daughter Polly (Dodson), the only woman left in this nearly abandoned coal-mining town.
Though it’s love at first sight for Bobby, the peppy brunette 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 fake 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 quite 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 with the one-and-only Marsha Moode directing with accustomed panache, the Downey CLO revival delivers on all fronts.
Schueller couldn’t be better in a role which has him singing splendidly, dancing with pizzazz, donning a fake mustache, goatee, and Russian accent, and charming not only his leading lady but the audience as well. DCLO favorite Dodson does her most engaging work yet as Polly, singing those great Gershwin songs in her classic musical theater soprano and proving herself no slouch on the dance floor either. Together Scheuller and Dodson make for an even more delightful stage pair than they did two years ago in Singin’ In The Rain.
Real-life couple Lewis and Carpenter are both of them scene-stealers as Bela and Irene, he in a hilarious mirror-image comedy sequence opposite Scheuller that recalls the classic I Love Lucy episode when Lucy met Harpo. As for Carpenter, she takes what in other hands might be a ho-hum role and makes it a delicious comedic gem of a featured part.
Paul Preston’s Lank is another winner, director Moode savvily giving Preston and Carpenter the 11th-hour reprise of “Biding My Time,” which they duet in Franglais to charming effect. Musical theater vet Menecola gives Everett a folksy paternal charm, with Ata Fahadi and Katie Toussaint both quite funny as Eugene and Patricia Fodor.
Enjoyable supporting turns are delivered by Heather Blades as Mother Child, William Crisp as Custis, Christopher Curry as Wyatt, Greg Hardash as Sam, Denai Lovrien as Patsy, Laura Rensling as Tess, and James Robuck as Moose, with topnotch song-and-dance cameos by Hanz Enyeart (Will), Steven Murray (Pete), Roy Okida (Joe), Kyle Van Amburgh (Jack), along with Timothy Hearl and Eric A. Peterson (Jim).
Angela Asch, Heather Aufdenberg as Claire, Kayelyn Blockinger, Lauren Cicerone, Vanessa Dunn, Lyndell Higgins, Aleesha McNeff, Carrie Millard, Calista Ruiz, Sheri Vasquez (Irene), and Tina Koyuki Whitley (Merle) do fabulous work as the Zangler Girls and assorted other dames.
The unseen star of the evening is choreographer Nathan Wise, who takes Stroman’s iconic original moves as inspiration for quite possibly the most exciting tap and swing choreography I’ve seen in a Downey CLO production, with some of the overall best dancers I’ve seen on a Downey Theater stage, the crowning achievement of the evening being the show-stopping eight-minute, high-energy Act One finale that is “I Got Rhythm.” Musical director Eddy Clement conducts the ever reliable Downey Civic Light Opera Orchestra.
Crazy For You is as good-looking a musical as I’ve seen at DCLO, particularly in center stage scenes taking place in a nicely realized Deadrock, terrifically lit by lighting designer Jacqui Jones. Fabulous costumes by The Theatre Company and topnotch sound design by Jay Lee complete the package. Mark Keller is technical director. Sally Casey Bell is stage manager. Ken & Dottie Reiner are once again honorary producers.
Following tiptop productions of The Pajama Game, Singin’ In The Rain, and Funny Girl, Crazy For You once again demonstrates just how much of a Southland gem Downey Civic Light Opera is under the executive producership of the phenomenon that is Downey’s very own Marsha Moode. Crazy For You is Gershwin, Moode, and the Downey CLO at their very best.
Downey Theatre, 8435 E. Firestone Blvd., Downey.
September 28, 2012