It's crazy not to be 'Crazy for You'

DOWNEY - There are a lot of reasons to catch this final weekend of the Downey Civic Light Opera's production of "Crazy For You," not least of which is that it may well be the best production the DCLO has ever mounted. It's big and bright in the old Broadway tradition, including pretty in pink showgirls with legs up to here. It comes at you with a breezy charm that doesn't take itself too seriously. It's tightly directed by Marsha Moode, and it beams with confident skill from its principal actors, dancers and musicians. But mainly it's an excuse to revel in the music and lyrics of George and Ira Gershwin. Any excuse will do. "Crazy for You," loosely based on the Gershwin's 1930 musical, "Girl Crazy," was written by Ken Ludwig for a 1992 Broadway production that won a slew of awards (including a Tony for best Musical) in New York and London. The plot is faintly ridiculous in the Let's-Put-On-A-Show tradition made famous by "42nd Street," Mickey and Judy and Gene and Cyd in the movie "Summer Stock," and in the grittier backstage, or pre-stage classic, "A Chorus Line."

In it, Bobby Childs is the scion of a wealthy New York banking family but would rather be a hoofer, principally for the Hungarian-born impresario Bella Zangler. Bobby has a vamp-ish fiancée, Irene, who knows a good thing when she sees it and oozes with soignee persistence. When Bobby's mother presses a foreclosure deed into his hands (isn't that what banks do? we think), he hightails it out to Nevada to shut down the Deadrock Hotel and its unused theater. There he meets and falls in love with the feisty young Polly, who hates him on sight but is tricked by his disguise as Zangler, eager to revive the theater. The real Zangler shows up. So does Irene. So does Mother. Uh-oh. You get the idea.

Of that Broadway opening, the New York Times' Frank Rich wrote, "...'Crazy for You' uncorked the American musical's classic blend of music, laughter, dancing sentiment and showmanship with a freshness and confidence rarely seen in the 'Cats' decade... it scrapes away decades of cabaret and jazz and variety show interpretations to reclaim the Gershwins' standards, in all their glorious youth, for the dynamism of the stage." Those standards include "Someone to Watch Over Me," "I Got Rhythm," "The Real American Folk Song (Is a Rag)", "But Not For Me," and "Nice Work If You Can Get It." Listening to them, you marvel at their compositional skill, their brio, their romanticism, their catchy rhythms, their artful life.

You can't help feeling the loss of that prodigious, evocative skill. New musicals, like "The Book of Mormon," keep cropping up to good notices and popular appeal, but you never hear about the songs. The same with Disney musicals, or the blimpy Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganzas. With few exceptions, like "Hair" and The Who's "Tommy," the rock musical is too tyrannized by the rock beat to allow for a large and subtle range of character and emotional expression.

But it isn't just craft you miss, which the Gershwins were far from alone in exhibiting, when you consider Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg, Lorenz Hart, Frank Loesser and Rodgers & Hammerstein, among other great songsmiths. It's the robust cheer of a lost America. The Gershwins and Berlins were Jews and Eastern Europeans who, along with Irish, Italians, Germans and other continentals, fled pogroms, oppression and brutal poverty to arrive in a new world which had recently lost a generation of young men in fratricidal Civil War and was eager to rebuild. In America, they found pizzazz, unheard-of freedoms, humor, a forward-looking people. The Jews especially, mindful of language, fell in love with the catchy American vernacular. They found traditional American music, like that of Stephen Foster, roiled by the black music of gospel, bodegas, and harmonies and rhythms reaching back to Africa. The Gershwins, and other young songwriters working in close proximity, were so eager to get it all down, that they typed and played away with a racket that earned West 28th Street the nickname Tin Pan Alley.

That spirit buoyed the country through two world wars and the Great Depression, where 25% of Americans were out of work and there were virtually no social safety nets. George Gershwin died in 1938, but the healthy musical tradition survived through the '50s, crested in the big babe musicals of the '60s ("Hello, Dolly!" "Mame"), then hit a cul-de-sac in the rueful, hard-eyed musicals of Stephen Sondheim. The thrill was gone.

What happened? Irony happened. Anxiety and alienation happened. In 1976 the movie "Network" told us that the country was still great but the individual was finished. What happened, I think, was that the pace of life sped up to where we lost control and spent all our energies coping with the clamorous rapidity of change to where, in Yeats' endlessly recycled words, "the worst are full of passionate intensity and the best lack all conviction." We lost our illusions and found, too late, that there was nothing to replace their comforts and pleasures. We turned to movies and then TV as outsiders looking in on surrogate lives. What else could explain the Kardashians?

I think the evocation of that old innocence is what the original producers of "Crazy for You" were banking on, and it worked. Why not? Despite pre-nups and no-fault, don't a lot of people still claim "Our Love is Here to Stay" as a truism?

It works too with this DCLO production. It helps that the two stars, Mischi Schueller and Andrea Dodson as Bobby and Polly, are limber, expressive performers with terrific voices, and that William T. Lewis, Charlotte Carpenter, Heather Blades and Paul Preston lend excellent support. The DCLO has become more of a repertory company over time, and the ease of performers working together shows. Surer choreography shows too (a couple of the dancers have been working in Vegas). And Eddie Clements' pit orchestra has an ear for the sexy swank that often characterizes the Gershwin style.

A disclaimer: I've written DCLO program notes for many years, and before that was a theater critic for the Los Angeles Times and Variety. The late Kenneth Tynan used to say that it was sheer drudgery to have to write about anything that wasn't brilliantly good or appallingly bad. He could have added that trash piles up faster then you can dispense with it.

But I can't help getting up to praise this DCLO production. One way or another, it'll give you an emotion.

********** Published: October 11, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 26