For the last 40 years, David Merrick has operated on a principle many producers (and even critics) either do not know, ignore or have forgotten: People go to the theater, especially the Broadway theater, to have a good time.
They certainly will at "Oh, Kay!"
The 1926 Gershwin musical, which has such standards as "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Clap Yo' Hands" and "Do, Do, Do," has been set in Harlem, rather than the North Shore of Long Island, where virtually all '20s musicals took place.
As you might imagine, the change of place has less to do with a desire to depict the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s than with an awareness of the demographics of Broadway audiences in 1990.
In this incarnation, "Oh, Kay!" is essentially a dance show. It makes great use of the extraordinary tap dancing talents of Gregg Burge, Kyme, Stanley Wayne Mathis and Kevin Ramsey, as well as a gifted ensemble. Dan Siretta has choreographed some explosive dances - particularly a romp across a sofa for Burge; "Fidgety Feet," a number for Stanley Wayne Mathis, in which the feet seem to operate independently of the body, and a rousing "Clap Yo' Hands" for Ramsey.
If the group choreography has a weakness, it is that each number attains a certain intensity right at the beginning rather than building slowly. This means that the stage is invariably full of dynamic, whirling bodies, but it happens on a regular enough basis that it eventually loses dramatic impact.
As is customary with revivals of '20s shows, some other Gershwin numbers, like "Slap That Bass," have been interpolated. A real find is an unpublished song called "Ask Me Again," which Brian Mitchell, an assured, compelling performer, sings with great power. One of the songs, "Show Me the Town," struck me as decidedly un-Gershwin, until I discovered that it was written for - and dropped - from the original production.
Dance takes the spotlight for most of the evening, but the play's silly humor is also extremely well served, especially by Helmar Augustus Cooper, who handles a series of daffy roles with an impish flair. Angela Teek, who plays the title role, also proves herself a solid comedienne. She sings "Do, Do, Do" delightfully with Mitchell, but does less well with "Someone to Watch Over Me," in which she sidesteps the direct emotional thrust of the song by embellishing it with mannerisms.
A jarring note is an extended sequence of minstrel show jokes in the second act. I suspect that even in '20s Harlem such humor would have been performed with a satirical edge, none of which is here. The unpleasant social implications of these dumb jokes harm the air of sustained inanity of the rest of the show.
Theoni Aldredge's costumes - from a set of outrageously plumed showgirl outfits in the first number to the elegant finery of the finale - project the period dazzlingly. Kenneth Foy's relatively restrained sets also capture the tone of the time well.
Nothing conveys the innocent, irrepressible spirit of the '20s better than Arnold Goland's splendid orchestrations. The overture lasts longer than most; so does the exit music. But in as bleak a time as this, generous helpings of Gershwin seem a genuine philanthropic act. Philanthropy is not what David Merrick is known for, but in this case that's what it is.
Clap yo' hands, stamp yo' feet, "Oh, Kay!" is back in town and it is very much okay - so much okay that it is surprisingly terrific. With its magic music, replete with elegantly soaring melodies and tip-tap jazz rhythms, together with its nonsensical sense of fun, this flashback to a Broadway long past explodes with a timeless energy.
Indeed, opening at the Richard Rodgers Theater last night, it has come up as oddly fresh as David Merrick's last musical on Broadway (or what many thought would be his last musical), "42nd Street."
David Merrick? David Who? Surely, the sharp-minded will ask. George Gershwin composed "Oh, Kay!" back in 1926, with lyrics by his brother Ira (here given the occasional assist from Howard Dietz), and a book by that amiably bumbling British Broadway duo, Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse.
Where does David Merrick come in - particularly to the extent that the old man's still overweening vanity can put his producer's name above the title in lettering markedly more prominent than Gershwin's?
After all, in the first place, credit for the whole concept for the present recension of "Oh, Kay!" belongs to its director and choreographer, Dan Siretta.
It was Siretta who had the whole idea of relocating its '20s tale of bootleggers, high society and ditsy love from the Hamptons to the Harlem renaissance, adding a nightclub to offer credibility to the larger production numbers, and providing the whole musical with an all-black cast.
He then arranged to have the book very resourcefully rebound and adapted by James Racheff, and originally staged this newly viable version last year at Michael Price's Goodspeed Opera House, where he is associate artistic director.
So now along comes Merrick, in the second place - picking up the Goodspeed production and transplanting it to Broadway, as he did some years ago with Siretta's Goodspeed version of Jerome Kern's "Very Good Eddie" from a decade earlier. But there is, I suspect, a difference.
Most of the original Goodspeed casting has been changed, while Merrick, the old alchemist, and his production team have given the entire production that particular give-my-regards-to "42nd Street" gloss that all the earlier Goodspeed imports, delightful as many were, somehow lacked.
Racheff has done the same kind of smooth job in updating the text that the Lincoln Center collaborators achieved for Jerry Zaks' recent staging of "Anything Goes," and the Gershwin score has also been freshly realized.
The musical team of Tom Fay (the musical director), Arnold Goland (orchestrations) and Donald Johnston (dance arrangements) has gone to infinite pains to maintain some real semblance of the original non-amplified sound of a Gershwin pit orchestra, even to the inclusion of featured duo pianists, adding substantially to the evening's slight yet telling period patina.
The actual musical numbers in shows at this time were very much an interchangeable if not actually a moveable feast, and here, although such celebrated showstoppers as "Clap Yo' Hands," "Do, Do, Do," "Fidgety Feet" and, of course, "Someone to Watch Over Me," are naturally in place, some songs have been omitted, and some added, most notably that old Astaire movie number, "Slap That Bass."
The sumptuous scenery by Kenneth Foy, with its shrewd suggestion of a '20s style that never wanders into pastiche, and the sensitively period-inspired but cleverly updated costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge, conspire happily to give "Oh, Kay!" just the right look and feel.
And, naturally but happily, the same sensibility has gone into Siretta's staging. This retains a lot of the traditional shtick horse-play of the period, but keeps the show moving like a jet (take special note of the two reversals of backstage to onstage that bookend the production), and does wonders with the period choreography.
Rather like the dances currently in "Black and Blue," Siretta has caught that special theatricalization of Harlem style which can still be seen in certain old videos and given it a vibrant new life.
And the dancing is sensational, with four performers - two unknowns, Stanley Wayne Mathis, Kevin Ramsey and the better-known Kyme and Gregg Burge - dancing up a high-cyclone tempest, and singing with a sort of prehistoric rap-chic.
The comic lead is a roly-poly delight and mast of comic timing, Helmar Augustus Cooper, and more fun is offered by the show's stiff-backed comic butts, Tamara Tunie Bouquet (that's the name of the actress, not the character!) as a frostily prissy fiancee, and Alexander Barton as her Episcopalian minister father.
As the lovers, learning in the hard way of Broadway musicals to watch over one another, Brian Mitchell makes an elegant stuffed shirt, while as the eponymous Kay Jones (a role once graced by the great Gertrude Lawrence), a sprightly Angela Teek, who came to her successful audition through the unlikely route of TV's "Star Search '90," is a perfect and cheeky delight.
Looking back, I am not at all sure that in my heart of hearts I expected to enjoy this all-new "Oh, Kay!" at all - and I am absolutely positive that I never expected to enjoy it this much. The evergreen Gershwins, the ever-hopeful Siretta, and, yes, the large-named Mr. Merrick (welcome back, David), have given us an enchanted, delicious evening.
If there is any serious doubt that David Merrick is one of the greatest showmen in Broadway history, it can be dispelled by the fact that his flops are as fabled as his hits. Nearly as much theatrical lore attends the ill-fated "Mata Hari," "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "Mack and Mabel" and "Subways Are for Sleeping" as it does "Hello, Dolly!," "Gypsy" and "42nd Street." Mr. Merrick, like most other high-rolling, larger-than-life impresarios, was rarely one to mess with the in-between, which is why "Oh, Kay!," his new show at the Richard Rodgers Theater and his first since "42d Street" a decade ago, is an anomaly. This loose adaptation of the Gershwins' 1926 musical is a chintzy, innocuous slab of stock that is likely to leave more than a few theatergoers shrugging their shoulders and asking, "Didn't I doze through that a couple of summers ago in a barn?"
Actually, "Oh, Kay!" bills itself as "inspired by" a well-received production mounted at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut last year with a mostly different cast. I didn't see the Goodspeed "Oh, Kay!," but Mr. Merrick has undoubtedly had his way with the project since then: faint quotations from his happier past achievements filter like ghosts through the evening's haze.
Dan Siretta's opening and closing dance routines (and surely the word routine was coined to describe them) are would-be clones of the Gower Champion numbers that bracketed "42nd Street," though this time the size of both the chorus and the choreographer's imagination seem about half that of the originals. The Merrick legacy also figures in this production's "concept," credited in the program to Mr. Siretta. Just as the producer brought Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway and company into the long-running "Hello, Dolly!" a quarter-century ago, so he fields an all-black cast in "Oh, Kay!," first written by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse for the English star Gertrude Lawrence.
Even in its time, Mr. Merrick's black "Dolly" was attacked in some churlish quarters as a minstrel show, but history should more kindly regard it as an exhilarating example of what current parlance calls non-traditional casting. "Hello, Dolly!" was not rewritten for its black performers, and Ms. Bailey and Mr. Calloway were given the same free rein to play Dolly Gallagher Levi and Horace Vandergelder as Carol Channing and David Burns, among others, had been before them. "Oh, Kay!," by contrast, does seem like a minstrel show. An adapter, James Racheff, has clumsily transported the libretto to an ersatz Jazz Age Harlem, with eye-popping gags and stereotypes that are less redolent of the Cotton Club than of "Amos 'n' Andy."
But "Oh, Kay!" is so deficient in more mundane theatrical areas that debating its curious racial politics is a critical luxury. Little in this show makes sense, starting with a vertigo-inducing opening scene in which a cry of "Raid!" sends chorus performers at the Paradise Club running around in circles while various curtains rise and fall to beat the band. Shortly after that, the entire company delivers cases of bootleg booze to a millionaire's town house while performing a song ("When Our Ship Comes Sailing In") that, as staged, might be mistaken for the hurricane sequence in "Porgy and Bess."
When the town house's millionaire (Brian Mitchell) returns home soon after, he almost marries a preacher's daughter only to find himself falling instead for an intruder who must be the real love interest since her name is Kay (Angela Teek). This romantic triangle is then rehashed almost verbatim during the long opening scene of Act II before being abruptly resolved. The end of the plot is not the end of "Oh, Kay!," however, for the show loiters in the Paradise Club for three gratuitous scenes more, among them a three-man comedy act of the sort that didn't so much kill vaudeville as drive it to suicide.
For punctuation along the way, there are hoary jokes masquerading as campy wisecracks ("If brains was a boulevard, you wouldn't even make an alley") and, more occasionally, such lovely Gershwin tunes as "Maybe," "Do, Do, Do" and "Dear Little Girl." Certainly it's not necessary for anyone to sing Gershwin's praises at this late date, but it says much about his music's durability that "Someone to Watch Over Me" still exerts a pull here, despite the fact that the muffled-sounding orchestration (by Arnold Goland) is trashy and the singer (Ms. Teek) is strident of voice and mechanical of gesture.
Most of the other songs are excuses for Mr. Siretta's dances, in which noisy tapping, frantic arm waving and constantly accelerating speed exhaust an audience's spirits in the name of raising them. This choreographer seems to impose the same style on every show -- even one as different from "Oh, Kay!" as "Pal Joey," last summer at Goodspeed -- and one can fully expect to find tap dancers having a go at the "Ascot Gavotte" some day when "My Fair Lady" rolls off his assembly line.
As director, Mr. Siretta does not show off his company to good advantage. There is no romantic rapport between the ice-cold Ms. Teek and Mr. Mitchell, the robotic leading man. The rest of the acting is outrageously broad by any measure this side of the circus. Only the dancer Gregg Burge's sharply defined, time-stopping leaps and turns in "You've Got What Gets Me" elevate "Oh, Kay!" to an elegant Broadway standard.
That standard was more or less defined by Mr. Merrick for a couple of decades. Who could have imagined then that he would later produce a musical in which most of the first act is imprisoned in a gloomy Victorian parlor (muddily designed by Kenneth Foy) suitable for "Arsenic and Old Lace"? "Oh, Kay!" can be labeled a Merrick enterprise only because of the size of his billing and the ubiquitousness of a shade of red that has been standard issue in all his productions since "Hello, Dolly!"
Romantically or not, I would like to believe that this legendary showman, notoriously the toughest of audiences, is seeing another kind of red as he surveys the pallid entertainment to which he has unaccountably lent his name.