SOME LIKE IT HOT Sets the Jazz Age Ablaze — Review
I’ve been singing the praises of Kimberly Akimbo for some time now—of how the quiet musical’s continuation of Stephen Sondheim’s subtle, nuanced take on the form is undoubtedly the best new work I’ve seen in some time. To think that just one door down, on that tiny Shubert Alley between 44th and 45th Street, another song-and-dance show opened that glorifies the form’s other virtues—the razzle-dazzle ones that have us doing high kicks in our living room—is almost unbearably good. And yet here comes Some Like It Hot, blazing a three-alarm fire with charm and wit to remind us of the joys that beautiful people, electric performances, exciting choreography and foot-stomping, finger-snapping, neck-pulsing music can inspire.
Cleverly adapted by Matthew López and Amber Ruffin from Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy of the same name, and deliriously directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, it is the rare film transfer that feels tailor-made for the stage. And with Marc Shaiman’s jazzy score and old-school-naughty lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman, the production sizzles with the full heat of showbiz excellence.
Perhaps its greatest achievement is in its updating of the original text, which saw two men escape an impending mob hit in Prohibition-era Chicago by dressing up in drag and joining an all-women band on their train ride down to Miami. Here, the gender play is more fluid, less punchline. Though Joe (Christian Borle, having the time of his life) sees his alter-ego, Josephine, as a temporary means to an end, his partner-in-crime Jerry (J. Harrison Ghee, in a veritable star-making performance) finds a new way of expression in Daphne. The ride they hitch with bandleader Sweet Sue (a fantastic NaTasha Yvette Williams, who opens, sets and maintains the show’s bold, brassy tone) now heads to California. Why not South? “It’s 1933,” the Black actor replies. “Look at me and ask that again.”
It’s smart, quick changes like these that point to an updated Broadway landscape that can adapt to our changing standards without feeling corny or condescending with anti-theatrical speeches. No one stops the show to deliver a Twitter thread on trans rights, or explain to the audience why Racism Is Bad. When the musical’s story diverges from the original, it doesn’t feel like a representational box checked, or an exercise in performative wokeness, it just feels right. And here, endless credit is due to López, Ruffin, and the incomparable Ghee, who might well be the first person to deserve Best Actor and Actress for the same role.
What does come out of nowhere, thank god, are the spectacular music numbers. Behold, a new musical in 2022 that does not seem ashamed to be a musical. Every number is performed full-out by the most high-octane ensemble of the season—TyNia René Brandon as Dolores, one of the band members, stands out for her comic gifts—and often materializes from thin air. Because this is a show that revels in its theatricality, and understands that a woman in a beautiful dress (by Gregg Barnes) and a man in a tux dancing against the stars (Scott Pask did the stunning sets) needs no introduction. Nor does a climactic chase scene choreographed as a Scooby Doo-style open-and-closed door farce set in a grand hotel, for that matter.
The woman in question is played by Adrianna Hicks, in an adept performance whose vocals (her first number, “A Darker Shade of Blue” becomes an instant standard for anyone looking to belt a cabaret down) make up for a certain charm it lacks. And that’s without bringing the blonde bombshell who originated the role on screen into the equation. Her Sugar has the smarts and strength to pull off her boozy stunts and sing lead for Sue’s band, but falters on the seductiveness that would make a man derail his entire getaway plan to spend a night in paradise.
But any qualms I might have with the production are insignificant compared to the unadulterated, toe-tapping fun there is to be had here, especially considering the quality (and quantity!) of Shaiman and Wittman’s music. You don’t have to squint too hard to see how often and heartily it cribs from Anything Goes, another travelin’ caper where old mores get soaked in gin and come out with a Jazz Age pep in their step. The tap dancing duo’s early ode to their platonic partnership is a fun riff on that stalwart’s “Friendship” and “You’re the Top,” and the south-of-the-border “Fly, Mariposa, Fly” marries its predecessor’s “Be Like the Bluebird” and “The Gypsy in Me” at nearly the exact same mark. So if the Hairspray creators’ take on Cole Porter’s best score is a red flag for you, this show might not be for you.
But then, maybe musical theatre isn’t either.
Some Like It Hot is in performance at the Shubert Theatre on West 44th Street in New York City. For tickets and more information, visit here.