By Ron Fassler . . .
If you’re in need of a reminder of what it’s like to luxuriate in the ecstasy of a big fat Broadway musical comedy, then get on over to the Shubert Theatre where Some Like it Hot has come roaring into town. Old fashioned in the best sense of the term, it is both a throwback and a flash forward at the same time, invigorating in its brazenness. Taking on the plot of one of the most familiar and beloved film comedies of all time, Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s classic 1959 screenplay has been deconstructed to fit a more modern sensibility. Purists will take exception to ways in which certain elements have been updated to reflect more current standards of what is funny and what isn’t, and those arguments aren’t to be dismissed entirely. But one thing is certain: this Some Like it Hot keeps the jokes coming at a steady pace and offers the opportunity to see Broadway pros working at the height of their powers. It’s a thrill and a half.
For anyone who’s only seen the movie in black and white, the eye-popping color of Gregg Barnes’ period-perfect costumes, Scott Pask’s simple and effective stage design, and the expert lighting by Natasha Katz, add the desired glamour and glitz. Aided and abetted by a Marc Shaiman score that scintillates, and crafty lyrics co-created with his longtime writing partner Scott Wittman, it’s the most Golden Age of Broadway-sounding musical since The Producers. That was two decades ago, which is a long time to wait to be enthralled by this brand of music from a bygone era; one that tickles your funny bone and sets your feet a-tapping. And speaking of tap, there’s an awful lot of it in director Casey Nicholaw’s raucous choreography, adorned with his usual high standard of creativity (an Act Two door-slam of a number, reminiscent of Jerome Robbins’ Act Two door-slammer for High Button Shoes, is an obvious and hilarious homage).
Does the plot need recapping? If so, both versions tell the exact same story, as does yet another stage version of the film titled Sugar, with a book by Peter Stone, music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Bob Merrill, which I saw as a teenager exactly fifty years ago. Though flawed, it had a Jule Styne overture (nothing wrong with that) and a performance from the great Robert Morse that was one for the ages. Just like the film, it was set in 1929 Chicago, though this version moves the action a few years forward to the tail end of prohibition, where two down-and-out musicians witness a gangland murder forcing them to go on the run disguised as female musicians in an all-girl band. One of them falls in love with the lead singer and takes on the identity of a rich man in order to woo her, while the other is pursued by an actual rich man who is unaware that it’s not a woman he’s fallen for. It’s classic farce that was played to a fare-thee-well by the perfectly cast Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Joe E. Brown.
Matthew López, who won the Tony Award for his heartfelt and expansive drama The Inheritance (a run cut short by the pandemic shutdown in 2020), shows here a keen instinct for a broader style of comedy. Amber Ruffin, a standup and improv comedienne with a stack of television credits, was brought in as a co-writer when it was decided that a Black perspective was needed to rethink the role of Sugar (Adrianna Hicks) for a Black woman and get away from its Marilyn Monroe origins. The film’s co-male leads, Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), here played by Christian Borle and J. Harrison Ghee respectively, are also significantly transformed. Though Borle’s Joe is still a cavalier ladies’ man, he resembles nothing like the impossibly handsome and debonair Curtis, allowing Borle to create something entirely different. When he gets in the dress, the costuming makes him look as unattractive as possible, which leads to some of the best laughs in the show by way of others who comment on his appearance. As for Ghee, spectacularly tall with legs that go on forever, once in a dress brings out dimensions (and a genuine beauty) that explain things to him he never knew about himself. That self-discovery leads to smart writing and a much better way to go than simply throwing a man in a dress and expecting audiences to think that in and of itself is hysterically funny, which flies in the face of current sensitivities of gender.
In the role of millionaire Osgood Fielding III, represented in the film by that quintessential staple of farce, “the dirty old man,” Kevin Del Aguilla has a field day fashioning a character far apart from Joe E. Brown’s broad, yet riotous performance. Del Aguilla charms as a love-struck daffy, stung by Cupid’s bow, short in stature opposite Ghee’s giantess that makes for inventive choreography when the two dance together. In fact, their Act Two samba is a major highlight. There are moments when Del Aguilla threatens to walk off with the show, tucking it into his pocket as easily as he would a silk handkerchief.
Not to be outshined is NaTasha Yvette Williams, who as bandleader Sweet Sue, is called upon to front the band with her impressive song styling. Large of frame and even bigger of voice, Williams displays wondrous comic timing loaded with sass. Given a lot to do, every time she steps up to the plate, she hits a home run. Unless I’m mistaken, all five leads will be deservedly nominated for Tony Awards and more. Admirable support also comes from Mark Lotitio as gangster Spats Columbo and Adam Heller as Federal Agent Mulligan, the cop who pursues him. These actors are always welcome on a Broadway stage, as is Angie Schworer, outstanding as a band member who nails every funny line she’s been handed.
But where does that leave our Sugar? Though top-billed in the film (Monroe was at the height of her fame when Some Like it Hot premiered), the character is now forced to take a back seat in this rewrite. It has nothing to do with Adrianna Hicks, who is loaded with warmth and power as a singer. But the decision to take away Monroe’s chief attribute, that of a vulnerable sexpot, leaves a gaping hole that isn’t filled with anything else. If that term is now pejorative, it’s a genuine shame, since it goes a long way toward explaining why Sugar makes men do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do. Since this version removes both Joe and Jerry from being attracted to her, Sugar loses an essential part of what makes her the fulcrum of the story.
This also leads to an element, sadly all but eliminated in this musical. That is the discernible lack of tension in the budding romance of Sugar and Joe, and with Jerry feeling more comfortable and desirous dressed as a woman, there being no genuine yearning between him and Osgood. It’s called Some Like it Hot. Why is there no heat? People should be falling in crazy deep love with each other, not in like. Its creators desire to not offend anybody is actually more offensive than they think, tiptoeing when they should land with both feet hard. There might have been a kiss or two Sugar and Joe engaged in, but if so, it’s barely memorable. It’s a fear factor anathema to comedy and to art. There’s no getting around this being a sex farce and neutering that is a big mistake. Why overthink it when men disguise themselves as women (or vice versa)? Shakespeare didn’t. Though I still left the theatre on a high, overcorrecting is an issue that the current climate of 2022 going into 2023 needs to amend.
Still, as I exited the theatre to the sound of Shaiman’s exit music in Bryan Carter and Charlie Rosen’s wonderful orchestrations, I couldn’t help but be filled with an inner satisfaction that only the best musicals can provide. Some Like it Hot beats everything out there in the shining moments it wears its heart on its sleeve as a valentine to the musical theatre nerd in all of us.
Some Like It Hot, Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44 St. NYC, runs 2 hrs. 30 minutes (one intermission) – open run. www.somelikeithotmusical.com
Photos: Marc J. Franklin & Matthew Murphy (as indicated)
Featured Image: Christian Borle – J. Harrison Gee (Photo: Marc j. Franklin)