NEW YORK — Kelli O'Hara has admitted that she was a little reluctant at first to sing some of the classic, heavily picked-over Gershwin songs before starting on "Nice Work If You Can Get It." Thankfully that changed when she got to hold a gun.
The image of her cradling a rifle while singing "Someone to Watch Over Me" – complete with the now-ironic lyric "I'm a little lamb who's lost in the wood" – is just one of dozens of inventive moments in the new musical comedy that opened Tuesday at the Imperial Theatre.
While O'Hara and Matthew Broderick are the stars on stage, the real credit for this very enjoyable romp goes to book writer Joe DiPietro and director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall.
They've managed to take about 20 songs from the George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin catalog, marry them to the skeleton of the 1926 musical "O, Kay!" and emerge with a plot that makes madcap sense with songs that feel right for the occasion. If this is a jukebox musical, this is how you do it right.
The action takes place in 1927 on Long Island with Broderick playing the wealthy playboy Jimmy who is about to marry a well-connected modern dancer (Jennifer Laura Thompson), which would be his fourth wife. Those plans go out the window when he meets a pretty, bootlegging dame played by O'Hara.
The musical includes such beautiful tunes as "Sweet and Lowdown," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "S'Wonderful," "They All Laughed" and "Fascinating Rhythm." (Only songs from the Gerswin's "Porgy and Bess," playing in the Broadway theater next door, were off-limits to producers.)
There are visual delights in every scene, from a bunch of drunken partiers and chorus girls disappearing into a tiny shack, to a bride whose wedding veil never seems to end, to a woman literally swinging from a chandelier, to 10 dancers – six female, four male – leaping out of a small tub.
A boyish Broderick plays it all with a look of bemusement that often becomes outright giggles. Though not the world's best singer or dancer, there's something charming and self-conscious and arch about him, as if he's just another audience member along for the fun. If he doesn't take it all so seriously, why should we?
O'Hara is, as usual, strong and feminine even in men's clothes, with a voice to make you swoon. She gets to loosen up in one bedroom number in which she too-aggressively tries to seduce Broderick's playboy – in what becomes the worst strip tease in history – and ends up in a heap in the bed. Estelle Parsons makes a late appearance as the playboy's mother and almost steals the show. Fear not, everyone is happily paired off at the end.
DiPietro, who turned "Memphis" into a Tony Award winner, has massaged the script to such an extent that he has been able to slip song after song into spots like a frame over artwork. "I've Got a Crush On You" is sung by the self-important bride-to-be Thompson, "I Am Just a Little Girl" is sung by a drunken temperance activist (Judy Kaye biting into a delicious role) and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" – the one that playful contrasts to-mato versus to-mah-to – is sung right after the star-crossed main lovers have a fight, and it even gets joined by a police officer.
Marshall, a woman at home in a zany, feel-good world, lends some of the qualities that have made her "Anything Goes" a frothy must-see: Long-limbed dancing girls waving their arms in the sky, making huge kicks and doing a bit of naughty rear end bending and shaking. In one dance sequence Broderick and O'Hara dance on top of a table, chair, couch, end table and staircase, basically any possible surface on stage.
Many members of Marshall's "Anything Goes" team have been reunited here: Costumes by Martin Pakledinaz emphasize short skirts, spats and hats, a glimpse of stocking – remember when that was shocking? – pinstriped suits and skimpy dresses. Derek McLane's sets are rich and luxurious, from a glorious veranda to a ritzy dining room.
There's a secondary love story between Jeannie the chorus girl (the not-to-be-messed-with Robyn Hurder) and a bootlegger named Duke (a teddy bearish Chris Sullivan). Other impressive turns are taken by Michael McGrath as wise guy Cookie McGee and Terry Beaver as the imperious Sen. Max Evergreen.
"Oh, enough with this song and dance," says an irritated Evergreen at one point.
Perish the thought.