There's still plenty of "nutty" to be had in Nashville, as the stage musical version of The Nutty Professor continues its world premiere at TPAC, ostensibly a pre-Broadway tryout. The official July 31 opening revealed a professionally rendered large-scale musical driven by a good deal of creative material and executed with energy and style by an obviously talented cast.
That energy was further bolstered by a ripe audience that reflected the strong Nashville connections extending throughout the production's hierarchy. Producers Ned McLeod and Mac Pirkle grew up in Nashville, and Pirkle, a co-founder of Tennessee Repertory Theatre, still lives here. Assistant director Ray Roderick and choreographer JoAnn M. Hunter both began their performing careers as musical comedy kids at Opryland. Music conductor Stephen Kummer is a Nashvillian, and ensemble member Meghan Glogower is a graduate of Belmont University's thriving theater program.
So with feathers in its collective cap, Music City has successfully embraced the rare opportunity to be the tryout town for what might become a major American musical.
Clearly the goal here is to recapture the goofy charm of the source material, director and chief muse Jerry Lewis' 1963 film of the same name, a Jekyll/Hyde spoof that looked kitschy almost before time could even work some perspective on it. Of course, it was first and foremost a Lewis acting vehicle, and you have to love Lewis to love the film.
By the same token, you have to love star Michael Andrew as his stage reincarnation — like Lewis, pulling double duty as nerdy scientist Julius Kelp and his alter ego, unctuous lounge lizard Buddy Love.
At a big press conference weeks back, Lewis boldly stated how important it would be for Andrew to find his own unique interpretation of these characters. Yet Andrew has pretty much accomplished a fair, if slightly understated, impersonation of the master, and a rather entertaining one at that, especially as the stumbling yet lovable Kelp. Furthermore, as a crooner of the Jack Jones variety, Andrew has personal appeal and sings very well.
Author/lyricist Rupert Holmes' libretto recaptures the docile, candy-coated early '60s. His college-campus ambience — including cute coeds, cheerleaders, drum majors and strapping football players — reeks of an America before civil rights legislation, political assassinations or the arrival of The Beatles. This retro feel is neatly reinforced by David Gallo's sleek sets, Ann Hould-Ward's bright costumes and some startlingly fun chemistry pyrotechnics.
Holmes' lyrics are carefully crafted, offer their fair share of wit, and are generally well-matched to the music of stage and movie composer Marvin Hamlisch. The resulting score is mostly conventional Broadway, with ballads like "While I Still Have the Time" and "Stella" balanced against character songs, big-band numbers evoking Count Basie and Nelson Riddle, and a few worthy dance numbers that provide Hunter the opportunity to showcase engaging choreography inspired by '60s teen dances and Latin music styles. (Sadly, Hamlisch's unexpected death on Monday cast a pall over this week's performances.)
Bolstered by the fine performances of supporting players like Marissa McGowan, Klea Blackhurst, Mark Jacoby and Jamie Ross, The Nutty Professor comes off as a sincere attempt to pay homage to the iconic work of a legendary funnyman, and to reaffirm the value of traditional theatrical musical fare.
And while commercial success is a distinct possibility, it's not a foregone conclusion: The show is not without its shortcomings. For instance, though the Kelp-versus-Love conflict dominates the action, it lacks dramatic punch. Frankly, the Love figure is simply not as sleazy — not as "Hyde" — as he needs to be.
And while a series of mid-Act 2 numbers — "Take the Stage," "Everything You've Ever Learned Is Wrong" and "Step Out of Your Shell" (the last featuring a balls-to-the-walls performance by Blackhurst as a long-suffering spinster) — are enthusiastically delivered, structurally they feel like filler. They appear to mark musical time with secondary characters until the push toward the show's climax. Numbers such as these often do survive in musicals, but here they just as easily might signal a slump in the writing as much as a reason to applaud good acting and singing.
Of course, many theatergoers might not care much about the deeper concerns of craft, particularly since the production provides plenty of pleasant lightweight entertainment and agreeable middlebrow laughs.
But it's clearly not as potent or impressive as the 2001 musical version of Mel Brooks' The Producers, also based on an original 1960s movie. Whether the Big Apple will welcome Kelp and Love with open arms is still an open — and interesting — proposition.
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