Please, for the love of God, open your eyes. There’s an audience out there. See them? No, wait, I should explain. You see, if you opened your eyes, you could actually see them. I mean, the audience, the audience that’s out there. There now, isn’t that so much better? Oh, look at that. Such a beautiful thing, isn’t it: real, live, breathing, actual human beings, many of whom — many, many, many of whom — are paying real, live dollars, often hundreds of dollars, for the chance to see you in the new musical Nice Work If You Can Get It, now in a for-profit, commercial run at the Imperial Theatre.
You don’t have to be their friend or their acquaintance, Matthew. Heck, you don’t even have to like them. But you do — especially as your name is over the title — have to at least acknowledge them out there, as Norma Desmond would say, in the dark. If you could even go a wee step further, one little step further and do the same for your fellow cast members — that is, acknowledge them, spark up chemistry with them — oh, man, there’s no telling how far you could go!
The fact is, there is so much going for you with this project that your inexplicable and perplexing reluctance to connect, connect, connect, is a distraction in this otherwise light and diverting dollop of old-fashioned musical comedy. Book writer Joe DiPietro, fresh off his Tony-winning work on the somewhat more substantive Memphis, reverts to his paper-thin ways with Nice Work, and that’s perfectly all right with me: this show isn’t intended to promote world peace or solve world hunger or teach the Republicans how to work with the Democrats. The tuner is simply an excuse to trot the most glorious songs from the George and Ira Gershwin catalog, gems like “Sweet and Lowdown,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “S’Wonderful,” Fascinating Rhythm,” “Lady Be Good” and, quite inevitably, the title song. We can talk about how very dangerous and dispiriting it is for musical theatre creatives to go back to the Gershwin well over and over — I would have thought that My One and Only, back in the 1980s, and Crazy for You, back in the 1990s, had mined this material quite sufficiently beforehand. But that isn’t your problem, really; you’re not responsible for the material. You’re not even responsible for tipping your hat to P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, two of the great, now-obscure book writers from the early 20th century, from whom the show’s characters and plot are spiritually descended. You’re simply responsible for opening your eyes, channeling your boyish charm into an explosion rather than a measly dribble, and acknowledging that, well, Matthew, you’re alive!
So, no, just to reiterate: DiPietro’s plot isn’t Ibsen or Albee or Strindberg, but it is fun. As you know, Matthew, you play Jimmy Winter, a classic example of the louche Jazz Era playboy at the apogee of Prohibition. You’re downfall is the chorus girl — you’ve married, what, three of them already, and I’d wager a month’s salary (from the 1920s) that your character couldn’t recall their names, in order, whether he’s sober or the usual 37 sheets to the proverbial wind. For reasons not fully elucidated by the “Sweet and Lowdown” opening number, Jimmy is soon to wed one Eileen Evergreen — a great modern dancer. (Between Jimmy’s surname and Eileen’s surname, I love DiPietro’s clever allusion to the character John P. Wintergreen, who runs for the presidency on the “love” platform in the Gershwin tuner Of Thee I Sing.)
Anyway, if your eyes were open more, your character would seem more attuned to what comes next. Jimmy, for various reasons, takes off for his Long Island estate after he meets cute a bootlegger named Billie Bendix. Now, who can blame Billie for becoming besotted with Jimmy, the old-young sot? After all, she’s played by Kelli O’Hara, who keeps stretching as an actor with each role she plays. Cunning Billie catches wind of where Jimmy’s headed, and before you can say “This is a raid!,” she and her cohorts, Cookie (Michael McGrath) and Duke (Chris Sullivan), also head east, aiming to stash, in Jimmy’s home, an immense amount of hooch. Complications then ensue-the arrival of Eileen’s aunt, the Duchess Estonia (Judy Kaye), who makes Carrie Nation look like Foster Brooks; Eileen’s fuddy-duddy father, Senator Evergreen (Terry Beaver); a behind-the-curve police chief (Stanley Wayne Mathis); and Millicent, Jimmy’s difficult mother (played to perfection by the timeless Estelle Parsons). And the rest, as they say, is Broadway.
But you, Matthew, far too often wander through the production as if someone whacked you on the head last week and left you a dizzy amnesiac. Kathleen Marshall’s direction and choreography is on a par with any and all of the work she has done on Broadway in the last 10, 15 years-she puts the “ep” back in “pep,” and then some. And I don’t want to be one of those people who would reference to the fact that an earlier version of this show starred Harry Connick, Jr. — I don’t think he’d be God’s gift to retro louche-ness; it ought to be your well-trod province. But somnambulism is not the same thing as louche. You can’t look like cooling asphalt as so many steaming Broadway roadsters come flying by. O’Hara, for example, takes two numbers — “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Treat Me Rough” — and not only sings them gorgeously, as you would expect, but she artfully and muscularly uses her character’s connection to the meaning of the songs to really illuminate the moment. If we’re going to have another Gershwin musical, then, yes, she’s quite right: Let’s recontextualize some of the songs and in so doing reinvent them. That’s called acting; you’re more than capable of it. But you seemed more preoccupied with apparent (to me) worry that your feet wouldn’t land in the right spot at the right time. Like younger actors without a tenth of your showmanship, we could see you working. Trust, Matthew, trust. Jimmy Winter is feather-light and kiddie pool-shallow and finely fancy free. Get the lead out! If you do, it’ll be nice work, indeed.