Friday, February 20, 2009

opening-night review of *No, No, Nanette"

at Spokane Civic Theatre's Main Stage through March 15

In *No, No, Nanette,* everyone is on holiday. Nothing's really at stake. You just know that everybody's going to stay fat and happy.
The over-complicated plot weaves and twists, with elaborate ruses covering up minor peccadilloes. Then somebody resolves the latest problem with a quick revelation, which cues the chorus to kick up their heels and dance.
It's a celebration of naughty but harmless fun, sprinkled with songs that demonstrate how clever and beautiful we can be if we just put our minds (and voices and tap-dancin' feet) to it.
*No, No, Nanette* is a show with a heart of gold and a head of cotton candy.

"I want to be happy," sings the rich guy in this show (Robert Wamsley), "but I won't be happy / Till I make you happy too." It's a lovely, generous notion, and Wamsley -- light on his feet and lightning-quick in switching from munificent to muddled -- embodies it in a big-hearted way. The good will echoes in the show right through to the final number, when the assembled cast gestures toward the audience: All they've been doing is trying to make us happy too.

That's how they ought to be judged, anyway, so here's what made me happy about the Civic's *Nanette*:
The Mutt and Jeff marriage of Wamsley and diminutive Kathie Doyle-Lipe as the tycoon couple. Wamsley can overdo the heartiness, but his character is a generous fellow -- and Wamsley can downshift from bonhomie to befuddlement in an instant. Doyle-Lipe looked uncharacteristically uncertain in her opening tap solo on a short staircase, but her show-ending front-flips were delightful in a younger-than-Grandma way.
The way that director Jean Hardie and lighting designer Peter Hardie call for a full-flood light cue at the moment when Nanette suddenly asserts herself. (Having been told "no, no" all her life, she's gonna do a little naysaying of her own.) It's a silly, playful moment in keeping with a silly, playful show.
Peter Hardie's set design features art deco designs with a peacock motif for the rich folks' fancy apartment and an Atlantic City boardwalk background drop that lights up for an elegant outdoor party late in the show.
The sheer number and variety of Jan Wanless and Susan Berger's costumes is very impressive: pastel flappers with elaborate headdresses, golfers in Argyle sweaters and plus fours, sequined gowns that leave room for tap shoes, tailored and vented suits for the "Arrow collar men" of the show (at least before they appear in tuxes).
Cameron Lewis' wise-cracking and tap-dancing as the sidekick lawyer. He's full of double-takes and a suddenly growling voice and a quick grin when chorus girls caress his face, his shoulders.
Ashley Cooper's leggy flapper as Lucille, the lawyer's wife and rich gal's best friend. In the opening number, Cooper had projection (and sound system?) problems, though getting thrown around and lifted overhead by a half-dozen choristers might explain that. In the second act especially, though, Cooper and Lewis carried the show with their dance moves -- twirling and spinning in "You Can Dance With Any Girl," hinting at the tension that will arise when Lucille starts to suspect that her hubby is a philanderer too.
Jean Hardie's choreography creates frequent delight. Chorines undulate their arms to create "waves," and Lewis emerges "swimming" above the surf. There are Busby Berkeley tributes, kept brief. Arms reach up high and then down low; chorus lines with arms interlinked circle and stomp and undulate their arm; Cooper sings while reclining on four guys on their hands and knees; soon she's swooping up from the floor and into the splits while held aloft; then she's flung across the dance floor and splaying her impossibly long legs atop a nearby table.

The Civic's Nanette didn't create an uninterruptedly pleasant dream, however. In a show that aims at the creation of happiness, here's what didn't:
Susan Hardie gets saddled, as the sarcastic maid Pauline, with too many repeated jokes involving vacuum cleaner malfunction and an over-insistent doorbell. (Hardie was funny-inventive in the role; the script is what's at fault.)
The men's chorus could afford to smile more: When they're grimacing even before they catch the spinning dancers -- well, that's not fun to watch.
During the "I Want To Be Happy" number, too much comic mugging spread from Wamsley to both choruses, undercutting the comedy instead of helping it. "Tea for Two" -- a lovers' duet envisioning marital bliss -- seemed too sedate to be the first-act curtain number. An elegant mood prevails near the end, only to be shattered by Doyle-Lipe's character calling for a mass tap number.
Worst of all, in "Peach on the Beach," we were introduced to the playland of Atlantic City by a gaggle of old-fashioned bathing costumes. Now these costumes were fine, but the characters inside them were morons. They could imagine nothing more exciting than tossing beach balls back and forth and forth and back, and they giggled at, oh, just every little thing. Elsewhere in this show, you can trust folks who've got themselves in a pickle to think their way out of it; but the beach ball people had been directed to act like performing seals, and not the smart ones.
Fortunately, we're not on the beach for long, and soon kind-hearted figures with brains resume their places.

No, No, Nanette isn't merely a curiosity -- the kind of musical Americans liked before they started liking better ones -- because it has a touching generosity of spirit. But it's also self-conscious, and its style of communication is presentational: All the energy is out to the audience, and seldom if ever directed from one character to another. It's a floor show that says, "Let us entertain you" while skidding right past anything like, you know, an actual relationship.
*Nanette* is about floating on a bubble, only now our economic bubble has burst. It's an 83-year-old musical that's arriving about a year too late. (We're not in any dot-com boom anymore, and we're certainly not in the Roaring Twenties.)
But then there's always hunger for escapism, and the Civic's *Nanette,* if it doesn't deliver the goods in a continuous flow, still boasts plenty of high points. All they're trying to do, you know, is make us happy.

[ Tammy Marshall photo for The Inlander; Kathie Doyle-Lipe and Robert Wamsley as Sue and Jimmy Smith in *No, No, Nanette* at Spokane Civic Theatre, Feb. '09 ]

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