Musical theater lovers who might have wondered just how revolutionary Oklahoma! was when it redefined the Broadway musical in 1944 got a tangy taste of what came before it at Monday night’s terrifically entertaining Musical Theatre Guild concert staged reading of George and Ira Gershwin’s Girl Crazy.

Fully integrated songs and dances? No way. Lyrics that advanced the plot? Forget it. Serious subject matter? You must be kidding! And as for 21st Century political correctness, there was no such thing back in 1930 when Jews, Mexicans, Gypsies, Asians, Gays, Women, you name it, were deemed joke-worthy.

R9oYszHYTFwW9OdJavRguH6U8XfPiatNqwkIFq6ofUc And you know what? “Bad” as this all might sound to contemporary ears, the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy makes for one of MTG’s most enjoyable productions ever, and though some jokes prove groan-worthy, the majority are laugh-out-loud funny, with even the duds inspiring some rib-tickling ad-libs.

With songs like “Bidin’ My Time,” “Could You Use Me,” “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm,” and “But Not For Me,” it’s no wonder that Broadway brought Girl Crazy back to Broadway in 1992, albeit with a brand new book by Ken Ludwig and a brand-new title to herald Crazy For You—The New Gershwin Musical Comedy.

MTG sticks with Guy Bolton and Jack McGowan’s original book and its cast of sundry characters, and though both “Crazy” musicals center on the out-west adventures of a sophisticated New York playboy, that’s where just about any resemblance ends.

cKkGJlyaNDgfYNDTe_Ltl9f3Z09kJHYhBXLxB6DQ0AU In Girl Crazy, it’s Danny Churchill (Roger Befeler), not Bobby Child, who’s been sent off to Custerville, Arizona, a town that’s been woman-free for the past half century except for pretty blonde “postgirl” Molly Gray (Jennifer Malenke), who delivers mail to the males but lives out of town.

Though it’s to get Danny out of hedonistic New York City that his father has dispatched him west, Danny soon determines that a town without women is like pâté without foie gras, and sends for Broadway showgirls Flora (Maura M. Knowles), Fauna (Ashley Fox Linton), Patsy (Noelle Marion), and his ex-girlfriend Tess (Stephanie Renee Wall) to provide the entertainment once he’s transformed the Churchill family lodge into, hopefully, a thriving Dude Ranch.

Accompanying Danny all the way from New York to Custerville is NYC cab driver Gieber Goldfarb (Nick Santa Maria), a character straight out of the Catskills and originally tailored to match the talents of Jewish-American vaudevillian Willie Howard né Wilhelm Levkowitz.

A pre-Fred Astaire Ginger Rogers headlined 1930’s Girl Crazy as Molly, though if anyone’s name is associated with the show, it’s that of Ethel Merman, whose sixteen-measure-long note at the end of “I’ve Got Rhythm” made her an overnight Broadway star.

4TRPhWqn8rCYTvdScAz0v0sCA8UVHnSUoUXpqDlaSbw Merman played saloon singer Kate Fothergill (Misty Cotton in the MTG cast), wife to gambler Slick (Christopher Carothers), hired by Danny to manage the ranch’s gambling facilities, with other major Girl Crazy roles assigned to local thugs Lank (Stan Chandler) and Pete (Jeffrey Polk) and to smooth-talking Sam Mason (Brent Schindele), who lost Tess to Danny back in New York and doesn’t intend to let history repeat itself once he’s laid eyes on Molly.

With one sheriff after another getting shot dead, Gieber is persuaded to run for office against Lank, who is so outraged when his rival wins that the New York cabbie is forced to dress up as Big Chief Push-In-The Face (ugg!) and escape to Mexico, where Molly too has run off (apparently with Sam), and where Danny himself soon arrives along with just about everyone else in the cast.

Completing the Girl Crazy ensemble are The Foursome (Chuck Bergman, Christopher Higgins, William Martinez, and Erik McEwen), macho cowpokes in Act One, “Gay Caballeros” in Act Two, and four-part harmonizers in both.

Director Lewis Wilkenfeld knows precisely the pluses and minuses of the material he’s dealing with and makes sure both to emphasize the positive (all those great Gershwin songs) and to make the most of the negative (letting the audience know that—wink, wink—we realize we aren’t dealing with a great book here).

Befeler and Malenke make for a charming, golden-throated pair of romantic leads, duetting “Can You Use Me?” and “Embraceable You” to ear-caressing perfection. Marion proves a delightful comedienne and splendid vocalist with her bouncy rendition of “Barbary Coast.” Bergman, Higgins, Martinez, and McEwen have great fun spoofing macho cowboys and their more flamboyant Mexican counterparts, and sing “The Lonesome Cowboy” and “Bidin’ My Time” in razor-sharp harmonies, with Martinez a particular delight as a south-of-the-border hotelier.

ecJGe7l4O2OZz-VaGK6P_QyoNTMn2I6eH0ZoBDNfbKo Carothers warbles “Treat Me Rough” with finesse and plenty of oomph. The always terrific Schindele is suaveness personified as Sam, while Knowles, Linton, and Wall sing and play their roles with ample melodious charm.

As for Cotton as Kate, you may think you’ve heard the L.A. musical theater favorite belt out a song before, but you’ve probably never heard her in authentic Merman mode, her “Sam And Delilah,” “Boy! What Love Has Done For Me,” and especially “I Got Rhythm” easily reaching the farthest-up balcony seat and beyond.

The lion’s share of the comedy goes to an outrageously foghorn-voiced Chandler and his ever-ready sidekick Polk, comedic whizzes both, and above all to Santa Maria, the scene-stealingest scene-stealer of them all. In fact, the one-and-only Santa Maria may well break an MTG laugh record with his dazzling turn as Gieber—and some of the funniest ad libs and best ‘30s celebrity imitations in town.

Wilkenfeld and company present Girl Crazy pretty much as scripted, which means that characters say things onstage that if uttered today by a public figure might require a public apology, giving us permission to laugh this one time only before we return to contemporary political correctness. Still, if the term “Chinaman” was deemed a-okay for Monday’s performance not once but twice, the “Bronco Buster” verse “On Western prairies we shoot the fairies” should not have been deleted, the term “Chinaman” being every bit as offensive to Asian-Americans as the word “fairy” is to the gays. (Let’s be equal-opportunity offenders if we’re going to offend.)

As always, it seems quite miraculous that a production as virtually flawless as Girl Crazy should have been put together in a mere twenty-five hours of rehearsal, with books-in-hand often the only indicator that what we are seeing is a “concert staged reading.”

Musical director Richard Berent insures topnotch vocalizing as well as conducting and playing keyboards in the show’s fabulous ten-piece orchestra (with special thanks to a generous David Lee). Choreographer Lisa Hopkins even found time in the breakneck-paced rehearsal schedule to create a few excellently executed dance numbers, including plenty of her signature tap steps. Costume designer A. Jeffrey Schoenberg of AJS Costumes and assistant costume designer Jessica Olson garb the entire cast in snappy western wear.

Carothers does double duty as production coordinator. Art Brickman is production stage manager and Kirsten D’Agostaro Shook and Jessica Standifer are assistant stage managers.

Girl Crazy is the kind of musical folks are talking about when they say “They don’t write’em like that anymore,” and though in many ways that’s a good thing (a coherent plot, story-propelling lyrics, and emotional depth no longer being optional in 2013), there is pleasure in going back in time and seeing how things used to be when the Gershwins were young and a Broadway show meant simply a fun time to be had by all.

Alex Theatre, Glendale.

–Steven Stanley
June 10, 2013
Photos: Stan Chandler


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