Nice Work If You Can Get It
Upstairs at the Gatehouse
Reviewed – 14th December 2018
“It is a fizzy cocktail indeed, with bubbles that tickle you and fill you with a feel-good warmth at the same time”
Although it premiered on Broadway as late as 2012, “Nice Work If You Can Get It” has the authentic feel of a 1920s musical. Joe DiPietro’s book connects wholeheartedly with the whimsical humour of that bygone era, capturing the spirit of the roaring twenties. In essence this is a ‘Juke Box’ musical threading together a greatest hits package of the Gershwin Brothers catalogue, but unlike many contemporary counterparts, this show has a stamp of originality that makes it feel like the songs were written especially for this show.
It is very loosely based on the early Gershwin musical “Oh, Kay!” written by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse. The connection is tenuous, but DiPietro has captured the spirit with a cocktail of screwball comedy, oddball characters and jazz. It is a fizzy cocktail indeed, with bubbles that tickle you and fill you with a feel-good warmth at the same time.
That this is the UK premiere is a real coup for John and Katie Plews, the producers that have brought the show to the Gatehouse, and they have assembled a magnificent team who bring this show truly to life. A six-piece band do perfect justice to Gershwin’s inimitable score, while a twelve strong cast of ‘triple-threats’ gives the feel of a West End show; even if, at times, the space does feel somewhat overcrowded. But hats off to Grant Murphy, whose choreography packs every version of the Charleston onto a dance floor that could barely accommodate a swinging cat, let alone the full, swinging routines devised for the show.
At the height of prohibition, fast-living playboy Jimmy Winter finds himself intertwined in the escapades of various bootleggers, chorus girls and politicians. On the eve of his fourth marriage to the “finest interpreter of modern dance in the world” he unexpectedly falls for female bootlegger Billie Bendix who stashes a shipment of moonshine in his plush Long Island beach house. (It’s nice to see this timely twist: she becomes the tough guy while he is the ‘damsel’ in distress). Jessica-Elizabeth Nelson shines as the hard-edged yet flirtatious Billie who conceals a vulnerability beneath the devil-may-care exterior. A contrast all the more underlined whenever she breaks into song with her rich mezzo-soprano. Alistair So’s Jimmy handles the girl who gives as much as she gets in a mischievously nuanced performance with definite nods to Fred Astaire.
But this isn’t a show that boasts any leads as such. An ensemble piece, each performer plays a vital role (often more than one), from the wild flappers and chorus girls to the over-zealous vice squad, the politicians and the matriarchs. It is a real mixed bag but somehow everyone manages to find their perfect match. Love blossoms in the most unexpected places; particularly between Billie’s fellow bootlegger, Cookie McGee (a wonderful David Pendelbury) and the temperate Duchess Estonia Dulworth who knocks back the hooch: a show stealing performance from Nova Skipp.
The show’s denouement is almost Shakespearean as the couples come together and mistaken identities are revealed and rectified. It is positively uplifting; but the sense of joy we come away with has undoubtedly been roused by the music. The show is littered with so many of the Gershwin’s best tunes from their other musicals; “Nice Work If You Can Get It”, “Someone To Watch Over Me”, “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off”, “‘S Wonderful”, “I’ve Got A Crush On You”… the list goes on and on. But the genius lies, as I have said, in the fact that the story fits so well to the tunes, a marriage made in heaven, consummated by the sheer skill of an all singing, all dancing cast.
One minor complaint – occasionally the band are too loud for the voices. And if the space occasionally feels too small for the actors; that is only because this is crying out to be put on a much larger stage. And it deserves it. This production looks likely to be a sell out, so: nice work if you can get a ticket.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Darren Bell
Nice Work If You Can Get It
Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 27th January
Previously reviewed at this venue: