The Producers may have been both the best and worst thing ever to happen to Matthew Broderick. He started his career in the mid-1980s as a fairly smooth, smart-aleck teen mouthpiece for Neil Simon in Brighton Beach Memoirs and John Hughes in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but over the succeeding years, his persona for some reason tended toward being the hapless, schmucky one in movies like The Freshman and The Cable Guy. This had its apotheosis in 1999′s brilliant Election, and the following year on Broadway in The Producers, where his Leo Bloom was a virtual fetal ball of strained neurosis, and a perfect foil for Nathan Lane’s Max Bialystock. Producers, of course, was a massive hit on stage (although a disastrous movie flop), and now, unfortunately, it seems like Broderick is unable to do anything else.
This puts a giant hole in the center of the “new” George and Ira Gershwin musical NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT, Broderick’s first Broadway musical since Producers. His character, Jimmy Winter, is meant to be a flamboyant, millionaire ladies’ man in the Prohibition era who’s never known true love, but Broderick plays the part like someone who never got over being rejected by the girl he asked to the high school prom. His brand of unconfident charm is completely wrong for the part, and considering that charm is pretty much all Nice Work has, that’s a problem. Since Nice Work is essentially an original musical, only barely adapted by Joe DiPietro from the old storyline of Oh, Kay! by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, and Broderick’s casting has been part of the mix for months, so it’s hard to understand why–if he couldn’t change for the role–the script wasn’t molded around his strengths, instead of constantly accentuating his weaknesses. (One imagines the behind-the-scenes drama may have been more interesting than this whole season of Smash.)
The supposed central romance of Nice Work has Jimmy falling for bootlegger Billie Bendix (Kelli O’Hara), and there’s very limited chemistry between the two actors–Broderick is more the Ralph Bellamy character than the romantic lead. Luckily for everyone, O’Hara is more than capable of carrying much of the show by herself. When O’Hara is singing “Someone To Watch Over Me,” “‘S Wonderful” and “But Not For Me”, she’s singing for us in the audience, and that’s enough, even though Billie isn’t a perfectly fit for her, either. (When O’Hara does what’s meant to be a comically bad English accent–don’t ask why–it’s more bad than comical.)
Nice Work is, for all intents and purposes, a “jukebox” musical for Gershwin tunes, even if it pretends to have a plot. (More than it needs, really.) Billie and her sidekicks Duke (Chris Sullivan) and Cookie (Michael McGrath) hide some illegal gin in Jimmy’s cellar, in the belief that he’ll be on his honeymoon with dancer Eileen Evergreen (Jennifer Laura Thompson), and when it turns out the honeymoon is there, the bootleggers have to pretend to be the staff at Jimmy’s mansion… you don’t really want to hear more about it. Suffice it to say that no one turns out to be who they thought they were, and that romance is found by all. It’s just an excuse for songs like “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “I’ve Got A Crush On You,” “They All Laughed” and those above to be sung on Broadway, and that’s hardly a bad thing.
Director Kathleen Marshall handled this kind of meaningless fizz better in last season’s Anything Goes, which was aided by the spectacular Sutton Foster in her Tony-Award winning lead performance. Nice Work doesn’t have anything to equal Foster’s tap-dance extravaganza in the first act finale of Anything, and although there are some nicely staged numbers–notably “Delishious,” with features a bathtub that turns out to be more populated than a clown car–the show never finds any truly big laughs or knock-out moments.
Some of the supporting performers liven things up. Sullivan and McGrath pry their laughs loose as the incognito gangsters, Thompson does a fun impression of vintage Madeline Kahn, Judy Kaye gives it the old pro try as a prohibitionist who will inevitably get very drunk, and Estelle Parsons turns up late in the 2d act to imperiously deus ex machina the many open plot points. The show is never less than comfortable to watch, and it’s a mild audience-pleaser. There’s not much in it, though, that wouldn’t be more conveniently achieved by listening to a Gershwin-programmed Pandora station.