Previously Musicals Tonight! has performed concert staging with book in hand. Now with this production, the cast is entirely off book which allows for a great deal of 1920’s style dancing and a faster, smoother staging. For the first time, there is a set and many costume changes, another first for the company. Casey Colgan, resident director of the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina who staged the first-rate revival of the Gershwins’ Oh, Kay! for Musicals Tonight! last season, has done it again with a fast-paced and polished production which may be the dancing-est show in town with Charlestons, fox trots and/or tap dancing as part of almost every musical number. Of course, the story of this light as air musical comedy is supremely silly as were most of the shows between 1927 operetta, Showboat, and the early 1940’s when Pal Joey, Lady in the Dark and iconically, Oklahoma!, changed the form into what we know today.
You may think you have seen The Gershwin’s Funny Face, the 1927 Fred and Adele Astaire musical. However, you would probably be wrong as it has never had a major New York revival: the 1957 movie with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire had a totally different plot as did the 1983 Broadway musical, My One and Only, nominally based on the stage show. The movie used only four songs from the original Gershwin score, while My One and Only used six. However, both added “How Long Has This Been Going On?” which was cut out of town and did not reach Broadway until the 1928 Rosalie. The Musicals Tonight! revival restores three songs cut from the original show (“The World Is Mine,” “How Long Has This Been Going On?,” and “Dance Along with You,” as well as “Shall We Dance” from the 1937 Gershwin musical in which Astaire and Rogers danced to this number.
The book by Fred Thompson (The Gershwins’ Lady, Be Good, Tip-Toes and Treasure Girl) and Paul Gerard Smith (Rodgers & Hart’s Heads Up) is basically a farce with excuses for a great many wonderful songs. Jimmy Reeve (Astaire’s original role) of Silver Brook, New Jersey, is the legal guardian to his late foster mother’s three daughters, Dora, June and the ungovernable and irrepressible Frankie. He keeps their valuables in his safe. When Frankie’s scandalous, almost entirely fictional diary is left around for all to read, Jimmy puts it in the safe so it cannot go astray again, along with Dora’s jewels.
A pair of bumbling burglars posing as caterers purloin the diary. When Frankie convinces playboy/aviator Peter Thurston to steal the diary out of the safe, he accidentally walks off with Dora’s jewels instead. Peter and Frankie escape to an inn at Lake Wapatog, New Jersey, and later to Atlantic City chased by a Silver Brook Police Sergeant, as well as the burglars, Jimmy, June and Dora’s boyfriend Dugsie. All ends happily with three weddings planned for Jimmy’s three wards.
The Gershwin score features some of the teams’ best known and wittiest songs: “High Hat,” “S’Wonderful,” “Let’s Kiss and Make Up,” “He Loves and She Loves,” “My One and Only,” “The Babbitt and the Bromide” (the only song ever danced to by Astaire and Gene Kelly), as well as the title song. The cut songs, “The World is Mine” and “Dance Alone with You,” are pleasant without being major discoveries but “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and “Shall We Dance” are top drawer Gershwin. Music director/vocal arranger James Stenborg has a impressively light touch at the piano allowing the singers to make the most of their songs.
Aside from the syncopated, bouncy score, the single best element is the sensational choreography by director Colgan whose dances also impressed in his revival of Oh, Kay! last year. While the cast has obviously been chosen for their dancing skills than their voices, there are some stand-outs in the production. As the rebellious Frankie (the original Adele Astaire role), vivacious Jessica Ernest in a platinum blonde wig is an irresistible bundle of energy. Doing a spot-on imitation of early Marilyn Monroe she steals every scene she is in and does a mean Charleston. Whitney Winfield as her level-headed sister June in love with their guardian gives memorable renditions of “How Long Has This Been Going On” and “Shall We Dance.” Caitlin Wilayto is an extremely fine comedienne as the ditzy sister Dora.
As Jimmy, Patrick Graver is a sensational tap-dancer following in the footsteps of Fred Astaire, while Seth Danner makes a dashing Peter. Blake Spellacy gets his laughs as Dora’s boyfriend Dugsie with a Brooklynese accent. The low comedy characters of the burglars Bill Bateman as the veteran Chester and Edward Tolve as the bumbling newbie Herbert make their old vaudeville routines work. Doug Jabara is a delightfully exasperated Sergeant and does a nice job with the new but abbreviated song, “Dance Alone with You.” The expert ensemble of Christian Brown, Kacie Burns, Caleb Dicke, Giulia Dunes, Briana Fallon, Parker Krug, Andrea Weinzierl and Kyle White impress in all of their many dance numbers.
Casey Colgan’s production of Funny Face for Musicals Tonight! is everything one could have wished in a 1920’s musical comedy revival. While the show’s book requires a good deal of suspension of disbelief, it goes with the territory of early musical comedies, but allows for the memorable Gershwin score. This is a terrific example of the musicals intended for the tired businessman back in the Roaring Twenties. The uncredited glamourous and color-coordinated costumes also give the show a very smart, chic period look.
Funny Face (through October 30, 2016)
The Lion Theatre on Theatre Row, 410 W. 42d Street, in Manhattan
Running time: two hours including one intermission