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Review: 'Nice Work If You Can Get It' built around Gershwin and a goofball plot

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Screwball musical comedy meets the sublime songs of George and Ira Gershwin in “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” the 2012 Broadway musical that’s now getting an effervescent production at Margate’s Stage Door Theatre.

Based on the 1926 musical “Oh, Kay!” by the Gershwins, Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, “Nice Work” has a sly, sassy script by Tony Award winner Joe DiPietro, whose hit musical “Memphis” will open later this month in a Slow Burn Theatre production at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.

Directed by Clayton Phillips, with fizzy choreography by Danny Durr, Stage Door’s “Nice Work” is indeed nice work. The principal actors dig into DiPietro’s goofball plot with committed sincerity and comic finesse, and the 10 chorus members do Durr’s dance sequences proud.

Set in 1927 during Prohibition, “Nice Work” is built around the unlikely, unexpected romance between oft-wed New York playboy Jimmy Winter (TJ Lamando) and bootlegger Billie Bendix (Rebecca Tucker). They meet in the city on the night before Jimmy’s fourth wedding, when he is (as usual) completely sloshed and she’s looking for a place to temporarily stash 400 cases of booze.

During an interlude that includes a toe-curling kiss, Jimmy mentions to the all-business Billie that he has a Long Island “beach house” (mere mortals would call it a mansion) that he seldom visits. So Billie and her sidekicks Cookie McGee (Michael H. Small) and Duke Mahoney (Michael Schneider) gather up the hooch and head for Long Island.

The idea of a safe haven ends just after Billie and the boys have finished hiding the liquor in the cellar. The newlywed Jimmy and his narcissistic bride Eileen Evergreen (Emily Freeman) arrive for their honeymoon, and soon Cookie, Duke and Billie are pretending to be the help.

After a legal hitch – Jimmy’s most recent Mrs. didn’t quite sign the annulment papers – Eileen’s windbag father Senator Max Evergreen (Jerry Weinberg); her aunt, Duchess Estonia Dulworth (Dalia Aleman), a leading temperance crusader; and police Chief Berry (Michael Collins) show up. Chaos ensues, including the inconvenient complication of Billie and Jimmy falling hard for each other.

While the plot is the musical theater equivalent of cotton candy, the songs (sung to recorded tracks, under the musical direction of David Nagy) are Gershwin gorgeous.

Tucker’s strong, self-reliant Billie explores new feelings as she imbues “Someone To Watch Over Me” with yearning; later, as her soaring romantic hopes take a nosedive, she sings the piercingly beautiful lament “But Not for Me.” That amusing ode to differences, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” is there, as are such big dance numbers as “Fascinating Rhythm” and, in small instrumental snippets, George Gershwin’s triumphant “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Phillips has cast his production astutely, and his direction helps each of the actors to achieve just the right playful tone for the material.

Lamando, for instance, takes Jimmy from a party-hearty pretty boy ever mindful of his wealth and the threats of his judgmental mother Millicent (Gail Byer) to cut him off to a man who has truly fallen in love for the first time. Tucker’s Billie is tough, then captivated by Jimmy, then furiously jealous, then triumphantly happy.

As Cookie, Small is the show’s comic lynchpin. The actor’s expertly timed delivery and eloquently funny facial expressions get the lion’s share of the laughter – deservedly so. As the comic “second” couple, Schneider’s smitten Duke and Haley Jones’ socially striving Jeannie Muldoon convey the silliness and sweetness of their surprise relationship.

Freeman’s Eileen, played with appealing comic finesse, is every bit as snooty and ridiculous as Jimmy’s self-adoring, almost-wife is supposed to be. Aleman belts with the best of ‘em, and her Duchess has a booze-infused comic star turn after Cookie spikes her lemonade.

Against the backdrop of the country’s current political Tweet-fueled chaos, Weinberg’s Senator gets hearty laughs for his political pronouncements, and he and Byer have a moment when she reveals a life-altering secret. Collins’ Chief doesn’t get his bootlegging quarry, but he does wind up getting a girl.

Randall Parsons’ set, with a brief beginning interlude in a speakeasy, concentrates on the Winter mansion, its pair of movable staircases allowing Jimmy and Billie to make like Fred and Ginger at the right moment. Lighting designer Ardean Landhuis, sound engineer Rushnay Henry and costume designer Jerry Sturdefant are Parsons’ creative collaborators.

Sturdefant had to create or choose dozens of outfits, and the result is a colorful mixed bag. On the one hand, the gents look elegant in their evening wear, the chorus girls are sparkly in their barely-there opening costumes and their outfits for a bubble bath sequence, and some of the dresses are classic ‘20s drop-waist numbers. On the other hand, other dresses look like ‘50s party wear (complete with pearl necklaces), and Billie’s outfit when she scraps her usual menswear look to try to distract Jimmy is era-inappropriate (nor does Tucker’s contemporary long hairstyle suggest the ‘20s).

By mid-August, after a final four shows open at Stage Door’s longtime home in a former twin movie theater, the company will begin producing its work at the sleek two-year-old Lauderhill Performing Arts Center. “Nice Work” provides a nice, entertaining reason to visit Stage Door before its move.

“Nice Work If You Can Get It” runs through April 15 at the Stage Door Theatre, 8036 W. Sample Rd., Margate. Show times are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday-Sunday. Tickets cost $48. To order, call 954-344-7765 or go to www.stagedoorfl.org.

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