The Tabard Theatre Company is now presenting Lady, Be Good, a George & Ira Gerswhin musical written in 1924. The story – albeit a very confusing script – is about a brother and sister who are on the skids and need some money. They’ll do just about anything to get what they want – dressing up and crashing parties, pretending they are famous people, marrying for money (at least I think they got married) and just about everything else.
It’s a “1920’s styled musical” – think Thoroughly Modern Millie – with the same amount of hijinks, dazzle and tap numbers as every other 1920’s musical. There’s also the standard ethnic character that is a con man or shady dealer and Lady, Be Good is no exception. (This time it’s a Mexican, though I heard that Tabard’s production appropriately toned down the racial slurs.) Back in 1924, it ran on Broadway for almost a year starring the brother/sister duo: Fred & Adele Astaire. The show features some great toe-tappin’ jazz standards like, “Oh Lady, Be Good” and “Fascinating Rhythm.”
Everything on paper says: “This is a hit!” But, unfortunately, it’s not.
There’s a big reason why this musical is a “forgotten gem”. Frankly, it sort of needs to be forgotten. Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson’s book lacks focus in scenes and direction in the story. There were several times when I thought, “I have no idea what is happening right now.” Characters weren’t introduced properly, songs popped into scenes without any clear reason and overall, it was totally confusing. While, Diane Milo (Director/Vocal Director) could have brought a clearer vision to the overall look and feel of the production, the material never helped her in this regard. The lack of set and limited props never gave us a clue on time or place. Generally, I love a sparse stage because it lets the audience imagine everything, but when the book is riddled with inconsistencies, then as an audience member it just becomes even more confusing. The lack of diction in the music, especially in the fast tempoed “Swiss Miss”, was another reason why the story was lost. This combined with everything else, made up for a very confusing night of theatre.
The choreography was definitely the highlight of the production. Dottie Lester-White’s lengthy career rooted in tapping where she performed on Broadway with Katherine Hepburn in Coco and Ruby Keeler’s No, No Nanette gives Lady, Be Good the 1920’s charm that it needed so desperately. Also, the cast’s execution was quite fantastic. Their tapping and hand movements were sharp and precise, down to the last finger. You could see all of the hard work that was put into the choreography and dancing! I also loved how Lester-White used the entire stage (both levels) to showcase her dancers. I only wish that some of the blocking mirrored the creative movement of the choreography.
While, the dancing was fantastic and leading lady, Mary Kalita (Susie Trevor) did her best to sell it with her smile and charm, it unfortunately didn’t keep the show afloat. Since the space was so intimate and the material border-lined slap-stick, many of the characters overplayed their face and hand gestures to the point that it wasn’t funny. Kalita did the best at finding the very fine line between slapstick and over-the-top in her Millie-inspired performance. James Creer’s crooning in “Little Jazz Bird” and “Fascinating Rhythm” was another highlight of this production.
Sometimes “forgotten gems” need to stay forgotten for a reason. I thought the Gershwins were fail-proof, but it’s obvious with Lady, Be Good that they weren’t even close to perfect. I think it would have more enjoyable to strip the story from the show and stage just the songs and dance numbers. It then would have been a fun-filled, 90-minute production with energized tap numbers and some great standard jazz tunes. Then, and only then, would it be a delightful night of theatre.
Listen to “Oh, Lady, Be Good” from The Gershwin’s Songbook: S’Marvelous