Theater Review: At Encores!, Lady, Be Good!

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Photo: Carol Rosegg

Sometimes — and I mean this in a good way — the Encores! series at City Center seems like the musical equivalent of A Night at the Museum, making the dinosaurs dance. That’s certainly the case with its delightful 22nd-season opener, Lady, Be Good!, the 1924 comedy that featured George and Ira Gershwin’s debut score on Broadway. (Working alone or as a team, the brothers had contributed individual songs to shows since 1918.) True, the bones of Lady, Be Good! are so creaky, they must be held up with strings, but the mounting, and the superb restoration where needed, let you see something fascinating that would hardly be visible otherwise: how the American musical grew into itself.

Were it not for that, it’s hard to argue that a relic like Lady, Be Good! would be worth the enormous effort Encores! put into it, including a nearly complete new orchestration and the hiring of Tommy Tune out of semi-retirement to dance two numbers. The original book, by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson, only barely clears the low bar for cogency set by operetta and vaudeville, the forebear genres from which our musical theater evolved. The story is so threadbare that even Adele Astaire, who starred in the original with her brother, Fred, called it “tacky” and “weak.” “Tacky” may have referred to the premise, which draws its slight ration of humor from the poverty of the Astaire characters, Dick and Susie Trevor, a brother-sister dance duo evicted from their family homestead in Scene 1. “Weak” probably describes the mild shenanigans devised for restoring their fortunes. Both set out to marry a rich, older spouse rather than the partners they actually love — and then get rich anyway without making the sacrifice.

If the trope of romance having to defer to finances is at least as old as Jane Austen, there’s barely a notion anywhere in the script that wasn’t already hoary in 1924. Still, it’s a kick to see them in situ: the Franklin Pangborn and Margaret Dumont templates, the comic Mexican, the shyster, the swells, the inexplicable yodeling number, and the quadruple wedding finale, this one presided over by Tune in a tallis. The hodgepodge suggests the influence of vaudeville, but the prevailing tone is set by operetta, which gives us European dances (a ländler, a tarantella), formal choral lyrics like “Good evening, tell us, do / Is this the way in?” and an establishing number that hymns the glory of lingering in the lobby of an upper-crust resort: “Though adjectives are spilt more / About Manhattan’s Biltmore / With this hotel we are all satisfied.”

Though that’s a nifty Ira G. rhyme, we are conceptually just baby steps from W.S. Gilbert. But with George’s music, we are several leagues beyond Arthur Sullivan. Surely not yet all the way to what we think of as the classic sound of American musical comedy; though Rhapsody in Blue premiered earlier the same year, Lady Be Good! treats its jazz as a visitor who must be chaperoned lest she commit an indiscretion. There’s a delicious flatted passing tone, on the syllable love, in the harmonization of the title lyric (“Oh, sweet and lovely lady, be good”) and a suitably sinuous quasi-blues melody for “The Half of It, Dearie, Blues.” But the syncopation and propulsion we think of as Gershwinesque are mostly confined to two moments: the song “Fascinating Rhythm,” with its compulsively off-kilter accents; and the stupendous two-piano version of it, rescued from contemporary piano rolls, which forms part of a subsequent dance.

Hearing how those numbers shoot so far ahead of 1924 that they still feel modern today, you may wonder why the rest of the score (despite lyrical references to “each raggy measure”) does not. One answer is that a lot of the music was written long before the show; as Jack Viertel, the Encores! artistic director, relates, Ira specifically urged George to pull as many unpublished numbers from his trunk as possible, and let him rejigger the words. (“Fascinating Rhythm” was once “Syncopated City.”) The book writers then shoehorned them into the story however they might fit, which is not a way of achieving musical coherence, let alone inspiring a composer’s newest sounds.

I hate to keep harping on the dramaturgical failings of early Broadway musicals, but Encores! forces the issue; the concert adaptation, by Viertel, is more shoehorn than shoe. Tommy Tune’s character at least had a nominal plot purpose in the original: He was Jeff, the rich guy Susie tries to romance so her brother won’t have to marry Margaret Dumont. At Encores!, Jeff has lost even this connection to the story and is now called Professor. They should have just called him Tommy, since that’s all you get. (The entire setup for Tune’s second-act specialty consists of his saying “This is where I do my second-act specialty.”) His refusal to portray any kind of character but himself is actually immensely enjoyable: It’s like having a very tall friend dance for you in your living room, albeit in a garish suit with a bluebird on his boater. And though Tune is more graceful than kinetic these days, and takes a long offstage break while the kids carry on the “Fascinating Rhythm” tapstravaganza, he’s a trouper and a pleasure at 75. Suck it, Chita!

But here’s the thing: Such winking accommodations in the presentation of the text never seem to match — in both senses of the word — the seriousness and skill of the re-created music. Lady, Be Good! is an extreme case, not just because it’s Gershwin but because it required guest music director Rob Fisher and orchestrator Bill Elliott to assemble an entire stegosaurus from a couple of metatarsals. (Original orchestrations were found for only about a fifth of the songs.) Most of what you hear at Encores! (splendidly played, by the way, with the lovely, light textures of the ’20s intact) was inferred from period recordings made by the Astaires and by the original pit pianists, as well as from those wild, difficult-to-transcribe piano rolls. A fragment of one number, recently found at the Library of Congress in Gershwin’s own hand, was played for the first time in public in 90 years last night. Some of the numbers that result from such excavation may still feel silly (“Señorita Juanita”? Really?), but they are all given their best shot without condescension.

That tension is not going to diminish as Encores! is forced to dip further and further below the cream line to find suitable historical projects. If the winking that goes along with such an enterprise seems as much of a tic now as a necessity (would audiences tolerate these shows without it?), future presentations may require the adaptors to shut their eyes entirely. Then you’d have a concert. I’m glad we’re not there yet, because Lady, Be Good! still has something to offer as a staged event. Or at least as a danced one. Randy Skinner’s choreography — all new; the originals are lost — is often charming, and the tap routines are great. We also get a chance to meet new performers, like Danny Gardner in the Fred Astaire role, who maintain a line from the past, seemingly in their bodies. Gardner has a debonair but daredevil style, thrillingly off-center, that’s a joy to watch even when, as happened at one point, he stumbled. He’s also got the right balance of sincerity and insincerity to make the book material work. In that sense he’s not only a find for Encores! but a lesson.

Lady, Be Good! is at City Center through February 8.