‘Some Like it Hot’ Fires up the Laughter, Dazzling at the Schubert
One of the more intricately updated movie adaptations on Broadway that sparks a flame that will surely last, Some Like it Hot is perfect for the holiday season and year-round. From start to finish the sensational cast keeps the audience laughing, thanks to enlightened direction, (Casey Nicholaw), seamlessly wrought staging, superb pacing, on-point timing and smashing songs sung by spot-on principals and company.
Performances by standouts J. Harrison Ghee (Jerry/Daphne), Christian Borle (Joe/Josephine), Sugar (Adrianna Hicks), Natasha Yvette Williams (Sweet Sue) and Kevin Del Aguila (Osgood) hurtle the comedy at breakneck speed around the roller coaster turns of plot, mostly familiar to those who have seen the original titular film upon which this two-act musical comedy is based. Currently, Some Like it Hot is at the Sam S. Schubert Theatre without an end-date.
With book by Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin, with additional material by Christian Borle and Joe Farrell, music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman, Some Like it Hot, mostly through songs unspools the story of two Chicago musicians. Witnesses to a murder by a crime boss and his henchmen, Jerry (J. Harrison Ghee) and Joe (Christian Borle) must leave town to avoid being killed. As they flee for their lives moving from the streets of Chicago to a train journey across country to California, to their hotel destination, the cast joyously sings 10 songs in Act I and 8 songs in Act II.
The strongest numbers meld superlatively with the jazz/blues club and rehearsal scenes and display the wacky characterizations, i.e. Osgood (the marvelous K.J. Hippensteel) and his relationship with Daphne, for maximum humor. The club and rehearsal songs are rollicking, streams of musical electricity that include “I’m California Bound,” “Take It up a Step,” “Zee Bap” and “Some Like it Hot,” and in Act II “Let’s Be Bad,” and “Baby, Let’s Get Good.” The music can’t be beat if you love jazz, blues and a compendium of styles from that era.
The opening speakeasy scene “What Are You Thirsty For,” prepares us for the rousing up-tempo and hot jazz style that characterizes the music of Sweet Sue’s all-girl band. The song, like all of those in the club scenes maintains the high-paced energy which never lets up, thanks in part to Natasha Yvette Williams, whose band conductor Sue rules with a firm hand, is humorous and twits Josephine (Joe) about her age because she looks dowdy and frumpy, in a joke that is milked throughout. In assuming their new roles as women, both Joe and Jerry take pride in their beauty and femininity and are insulted if men “step out of line” and take liberties, or as in the instance of Sweet Sue with Josephine/Joe, feel hurt pride that they do not look pretty and young. Of course the irony that these men are becoming enlightened to what it is really like to be women, pestered and objectified by men is just priceless.
The first number establishes the setting of the Great Depression and Prohibition and introduces three leads two of which by the skin of their teeth avoid a police raid and being locked up by Mulligan (Adam Heller), who hauls in Sweet Sue and her band closing them down. That Jerry and Joe escape, establishes their characters’ MO throughout. They shuck and jive, deep man dive to survive, staying one step ahead of police or gangsters. But I am getting ahead of myself. Out on the street and down on their luck, jobs for a bass player and sax player are hard to come by.
Joe and Jerry try the Cheetah Club, owned by Spats Columbo. Mark Lotito’s convincing no nonsense gangster with a humorous touch is perfect for the role which requires some fleet footedness, during the wild chases and shoot-out scenes acutely conceived, staged and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw.
At the Cheetah Club, Spats’ man Mack (Casey Garvin) hires Joe but rejects Jerry because he’s Black. The musical is savvy about revealing the extreme Jim Crow racism of the 1930s through Mack’s obvious prejudice. The production also beautifully answers the racism and bigotry with the idea of family, love and unity with the cleverly written “You Can’t Have Me (If You Don’t Have Him).” Joe insists he and Jerry are a duo, and family (the Tip Tap Twins) who must stick together. As an act “We’re two of a kind, if you’re colorblind, separate mothers …but we’re brothers under the skin.” The singing is accompanied by Joe and Jerry’s excellent tap dancing which wins the day when Spats himself appears and reveals his approval of their talents.
The irony is not lost on us that Spats is tolerant of Jerry’s Black heritage and in this light is more humane than your average lynching bigot from the South, bullying Blacks to bow and scrape. Of course Spats is a murderer of another type (he kills competitor thugs and rats); he’s just not a racist or lynching bigot murderer. This is a fantastic send-up of “honorable” criminals vs. low-down, scurrilous, hate-filled murderers which is intimated but never stated. Thus, Spats we can laugh at, the the bigot in the Southern shadows we prefer not to think about though they exist and are the reason why Sweet Sue goes to California and not Alabama.
The clever lyrics and humor related to the bigotry toward Black performers during a time of extreme Jim Crow racism in the nation is a subject for jokes delivered by Sweet Sue and Jerry sparingly with irony. The references to racism are understated, and actually highlight the difference between past and present. Yet it is enough as a sad reminder and subtle warning about the uptick in white nationalism and bigotry in our time, hyped up on steroids during the former president Donald Trump’s administration because he gave permission to the KKK and other groups to express their racial hatreds openly as “very fine people.” In this production, the lightheartedness countering the prejudice and racism of the time sends a powerful message about acceptance that is not preachy or overdone.
For example Sue ironically determines the destination of her all-girl band to a place where they won’t be lynched or ostracized since Sue, bass player Jerry/Daphne (J. Harrison Ghee), lead singer Sugar (Adrianna Hicks) and others are Black artists. However, Sue never uses racially charged words. She only refers to how she looks and the audience breaks out in hysteria. After all, it’s the 1930s. Yet residual bigotry is in tragically in the 2022s. Importantly, the beauty of this update reveals the vitality of music and the arts which have always been in the forefront of accepting people, not for their skin color, elitist pedigree or class, but for their artistry and talent. Thus, the theme that art, music and entertainment as a noble calling is underscored as it brings us together in unity and harmony and encourages the best of our humanity.
The complications thicken when Jerry and Joe are at the Cheetah Club and prove themselves to be successful. Excited, Joe wants to discuss their order in the program with Spats at the precise moment when the musicians witness Spats murdering Toothpick Charlie for giving information to Mulligan. The frenzy of Joe and Jerry witnessing the murder and then running away in a marvelous chase scene into the women’s dressing room where they get the idea to go out in drag to save their lives is logically wrought and hysterical. Dressed as Daphne and Josephine, Joe and Jerry are able to walk by Spats and his henchmen without a “hitch.” Now, the only thing left for them to do is follow a tip they receive about joining Sweet Sue’s band.
In a one line quip, we learn they pay two ruffians to steal the instruments of a female bass player and sax player who had jobs in Sue’s band but lost them when they were unable to get instruments at the last minute. Thus, Daphne and Josephine conveniently step up for the positions as the clever Sweet Sue notices their unusual coincidence and timing. This tweak is one of many that works in Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin’s well thought out book that is filled with new quips and one-liners that land every time, thanks to Williams, Borle and Ghee’s exceptional timing and delivery.
With the conceit of Daphne/Jerry and Josephine/Joe going cross country as women using the all-girl band as their sanctuary and milked to max, the rest of the action follows a steady route until they arrive at their destination. On the journey the men get to bunk with women and learn temperance and self- restraint as they are reduced to looking but not touching. Also, Josephine discovers the inner workings of the lovely Sugar who he is falling in love with (“A Darker Shade of Blue,” “At the Old Majestic Nickel Matinee”) as she sings the blues ballads about her life and dreams.
In California the intensity increases. Joe and Jerry have to decide whether to leave and go to Mexico. However, there are dangerous reasons that stand in the way of their making the best decision of their lives. Joe has fallen for Sugar and Jerry has fallen for being a woman, a condition which emerges when the wealthy Osgood in “Poor Little Millionaire” shows he is interested in Daphne. As Osgood appeals to the feminine in Jerry, Jerry/Daphne has a new knowledge of himself as an evolved individual whom he actually likes better than when he was Jerry. This is not only LOL and J. Harrison Ghee makes the most of this new knowledge, it is refreshingly current and an excellent update of the original material in the film by Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to them, Spats and his men are making their way toward Jerry and Joe. It is only a matter of time before they will meet face to face. When they do in “Tip Tap Trouble,” the chase is an incredible tap dance with precisely timed, synchronized movement that is choreographed using doors. Nicholaw’s staging is a marvel. The number is paced by the ensemble to perfection with such apt choreography, it is absolutely breathtaking. The number brings down the house.
In this musical comedy as in the film, “all’s well that ends well.” Spats is arrested just in time by Mulligan and the couples reveal themselves and there are no hard feelings. In fact Osgood is pleased. The notion that you love despite gender and race, if you have the openness to allow yourself that joy, is the most satisfying of the musical comedy’s themes. And it is the most welcome and truthful. For, as Some Like it Hot posits, if one looks and truly sees individuals for who they are, no one should be rejected or belittled. It is a fantastic notion for this LOL musical comedy whose profound underlying meaning shouldn’t be underestimated.
From cast, principals, music and every element referred to in this review, the production has been fine tuned as a celebration of one of the greatest comedy films which was a stylistic throwback to the thirties. Likewise with this production there are numbers which reflect the black and white musicals of the past, whether it be their elegance or brassy, jazz tunes and rigorous tap numbers. The ensemble and swings are perfection and add to the enthusiasm and excitement of a show that is beyond sizzling fun. Some Like it Hot is a love letter to Hollywood Studio films that we will never see again, and a love letter to the present that we hope for with unity, tolerance and love.
Kudos go to Natasha Katz (lighting design) Brian Ronan (sound design) Gregg Barnes (costume design) Scott Pask (scenic design) Josh Marquette (hair design) Milagros Medina-Cerdeira (make-up design). The train is amazing thanks to Scott Pask who manages a streamlined, futuristic look that is full bodied and rich. The full bodied richness is especially so with the hotel interiors and various spaces that Nicholaw transitions into and out of in the twinkling of an eye to keep up the pacing. It is as if the entire production is on a metronome and moves to the ethereal beats of hilarity, somewhere out there in comedy heaven.
All praise goes to Mary-Mitchell Campbell for her music supervision, Charlie Rosen and Bryan Carter for their orchestrations. Final kudos goes to all involved with dance, vocal and musical arrangements and the creative team who helped to make this production shimmering glory every night.
What a smashing, important production that is as light as a feather going down but stays with you for its vital themes, music, rhythms (I just adored “Tip Tap Trouble” for its multiple layers) LOL book and great delivery by actors, who managed to be funny and not cartoonish.
See it! Go to their website for tickets and times https://somelikeithotmusical.com/
‘Chicken & Biscuits’: Delicious Farcical Fare @ Circle in the Square
In this current time of COVID when our country faces daily crises of social disunity, dangerous political extremism, economic injustice and abdication of sound public health practices by craven Republican governors, Chicken & Biscuits written by Douglas Lyons, directed by Zhailon Levingston appears to lack currency on superficial inspection. Benign family squabbles, sibling rivalry, death and succession, a same-sex relationship, such subject matter at the heart of the play is quaint fare for a comedic entertainment that offends no one.
Except Chicken & Biscuits neither lacks currency nor is a quaint, “sitcom,” family comedy. Its levity and humor smacks of farce and satire with dead-on threads of truthfulness. However, if one is dreaming, much will slip past in the twinkling of an eye in this play about black culture, family and the foundations of faith that undergird the best hope for the black American experience in a racist culture that hovers invisibly and surfaces surreptitiously in Lyons’ one-liners.
The occasion is the funeral for the father of the Mabry family. He was the pastor of a Connecticut Pentecostal-type (there is a bit of dancing in the spirit) black church. Succeeding him in the position is Pastor Reginald (played with humor and oratorical fervor by Norm Lewis). The imposing, ambitious, dominant matriarch Baneatta (the funny Cleo King) whose resume would make any ignorant racist’s head spin, stands by his side in the church family.
Gathering with their parents are daughter and son: the accomplished Simone (Alana Raquel Bowers) and actor Kenny (Devere Rogers). Rounding out the family “going home” celebration are Baneatta’s hyper vivacious sister Beverly (the gloriously out there Ebony Marshall-Oliver) and Beverly’s enlightened, wise-cracking DJ daughter La ‘Trice Franklin (the buoyant Aigner Mizzelle). To spice up the explosive, sometimes irreverent proceedings are Kenny’s Jewish lover, Logan Leibowitz (the LOL Michael Urie) and mystery guest Brianna (sweet NaTasha Yvette Williams).
Before the guests arrive Reginald counsels Baneatta to relax and not become embroiled by family machinations. We note Baneatta’s stresses when she prays to God for patience in a humorous riff about her sister. During this preamble to the funeral service, others step in and out of the vestibule. They share their hysterical misgivings and woes about the family interactions to come.
The staging at the Circle in the Square is finely employed; the flexible set design by Lawrence E. Moten III and clever rearrangement of furniture and props serve as a church basement, sanctuary, nave and more. The modern stained glass windows and wood paneling upstage center, flanked by paintings of a black Jesus and crosses on both sides, serve to create the atmosphere of a thriving church. The underlying symbolism is superb as is the assertion of freedom from the typical forms of bondage Christianity.
Each family member, an ironic stereotype of themselves, identifies the complications that will arise as emotional storm clouds threaten on the horizon of the funeral and aftermath. Kenny attempts to soothe Logan who has been disrespected and largely ignored by Baneatta and Simone who cannot brook Kenny’s being gay, nor his attraction to a Jewish white man. When we see them in action with Logan, we note their austerity of warmth with mincing words and behaviors. As they watch him founder in blackland Christendom with two strikes against him, his whiteness and his gay Jewishness, he crumples instead of standing to and giving it back for fear of offense. These scenes are just hysterical and we see beyond to the strength and character of the individuals and their weaknesses.
As Logan, Urie’s ironic, humorous complaints to Kenny when they are alone, set up the tropes and jokes which follow as we watch how Baneatta and Simone treat him like a rare breed of exotic who must give obeisance. Hysterically, Kenny breezily abandons Logan to their clutches: it’s sink or swim time for Logan. Urie plays this to the hilt authentically, riotously with partners, King and Alana Raquel Bowers as the straight women who “bring it.” Watching this is both funny and upsetting. The women are intentionally clever. Their response is anything but Christian, loving and warm, but who is playing whom? We are reminded of the hypocrisy of evangelical churches to the LGBT community who engage in political Republican actions. Though this is a church in Connecticut and its members are most probably Democrats, the similar odor is clear. We wonder, can the situation evolve for the better? Can they achieve common ground?
The only one who accepts Logan with Christ’s unconditional love and hugs is Pastor Reginald. And Logan longingly remembers that Reginald’s Dad (who we discover to be a waggish, wild pastor) showed the same love. For Logan it is no small comfort, but apparently this open behavior was typical of the deceased pastor’s liberalism and Christian equanimity.
Obvious is the clash between lifestyles and personalities of the sisters: the educated achievement-oriented Baneatta, and the wild, flashily dressed, divorced and “out-there” Beverly and her DJ, hip, savvy, “ready for her social media celebrity” La ‘Trice. Mother and daughter counsel each other to “shut it,” projecting widely but not seeing their own faults and outrageousness to care to change. They do it because they are funny and they laugh at themselves. Do they have anything better to do being who they are? Marshall-Oliver and Mizzelle make for a great mother-daughter team.
Truly, the women dominate this world as the service, the sermon and eulogies get underway. Their behaviors and actions are at various proportions of farcical and funny as are all these typical, atypically drawn individuals.
Nevertheless, underlying the laughter and stealthy ridicule of each character being themselves, we get the importance of family and faith community. Despite the miry clay conflicts that emerge as part of the whirlwind of events that race through the play to the end revelation, these individuals have each other’s backs. And entry into the family, as Logan discovers, is not easily won. However, when it’s won, it’s forever.
The service is down-home (different from evangelical) with the hope of less hypocrisy via a more spiritual relationship with God. Thus, when the Pastor preaches in the spirit and dances a bit in the spirit, the audience even takes up the “Amens” in concordance. Indeed, the hope of a better way flows from Pastor Reginald’s fountain of faith. And by the conclusion of Chicken & Biscuits, a better way has been found in the dynamic of each of the family relationships, catalyzed by a mystery guest that Baneatta feared and kept secret for most of their lives.
Chicken & Biscuits serves on many levels. For those who enjoy a riotous comedy/farce with characters that tickle one’s funny bone continually, this is the perfect play. For those who enjoy being entertained, yet also enjoy the illumination that comes when thematic truths about life and people are cleverly revealed without preachy presentments, then this play surely delivers. For those who value the unity of family that never devolves to hatred, division, anger and bitter insult and rancor, the play is a portrait of a black family which resonates through the medium of satire and good will.
Kudos to Nikiya Mathis for her hair/wig and makeup designs: I loved her cool hair design for La ‘Trice, and Baneatta’s sober, contrasting hair and hat, to Beverly’s unsanctimonious hair and feathery headpiece. Simone’s hair design was just luscious. And additional kudos to Dede Ayite’s great, character revealing costume designs, Adam Honoré’s beautiful lighting design and Twi McCallum’s sound design. Their assistance was superb in making this a wonderful romp with circumspection if you divine it.
You need to see Chicken & Biscuits for the cast’s excellent ensemble work, Levingston’s direction and Lyons’ uproarious writing. In all its satiric humor about family “types,” the production took me away from divisive political rancor and stereotypes that follow. Chicken & Biscuits is a welcome joy. For tickets and times go to their website. https://chickenandbiscuitsbway.com/