Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 11, 2022
Some Like It Hot. Book by Matthew López and Amber Ruffin. Music by Marc Shaiman. Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. Based on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Motion Picture "Some Like It Hot" Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Gregg Barnes. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Hair design by Josh Marquette. Makeup design by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira. Additional material by Christian Borle and Joe Farrell. Orchestrations by Charlie Rosen and Bryan Carter. Vocal arrangements by Marc Shaiman. Dance and incidental music arrangements by Glen Kelly. Music director Darryl Archibald. Music coordinator Kristy Norter. Associate director Steve Bebout. Associate choreographer John MacInnis. Music supervision by Mary-Mitchell Campbell.
Quick: What's better than a Broadway musical featuring a man pretending to be a woman? Answer: A Broadway musical featuring two men pretending to be women. At least this is true in the hands of the creative composing team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Two decades ago, they hit one out of the ballpark with a little something called Hairspray, in which Harvey Fierstein irresistibly performed the role of Edna Turnblad. Now it's homerun time again for Shaiman and Wittman and for a pair of terrific actors, Christian Borle and J. Harrison Ghee, irresistibly performing the cross-dressing roles in Some Like It Hot.
You'd think the very idea of men dressing as women for comic effect had rather passed its "sell by" date, as the recent wobbly musical adaptations of the films of Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire have demonstrated. Turns out, however, that you just need to be very smart about how you reconfigure this lemon of an idea into pure lemonade.
If you don't already know, Some Like It Hot is based on the 1959 Billy Wilder farcical comedy of the same title, a classic film which has already shrugged off at least one previous attempt at being transformed into a Broadway show (Sugar, which, as my ever-polite mother would say, "had its moments"). Then as now, Some Like It Hot tells the tale of two musicians who need to quickly go into hiding from a gangster after witnessing a murder. Forced to come up with something on the spur of the moment, they don women's attire and talk their way into getting hired to perform with an all-female band, Sweet Sue and her Society Syncopators (TyNia René Brandon is terrific as Sue, a mother hen with an edge). The musical sticks closely to the plot of the film, but with some very significant twists, smartly developed by the show's bookwriting team of Matthew López and Amber Ruffin.
In the Wilder film, which starred Jack Lemmon as Jerry/Daphne and Tony Curtis as Joe/Josephine, everything was played strictly for laughs. They never looked like anything other than men dressed as women, selling the chuckles without giving anyone the remotest opportunity to feel squeamish. It was 1959 after all, and it took a lot of clever writing, directing, and acting for audiences to comfortably take in Joe E. Brown as Osgood Fielding proposing marriage to "Daphne," concluding with the famous closing line when Lemmon removes his wig and explains that he is a man, and Brown, undaunted, replies: "Well, nobody's perfect."
But for Ghee's character, becoming "Daphne" represents an extraordinary self-discovery, that "he" is not only Jerry, but truly is also Daphne. Perhaps the term "non-binary" had not made its way into Webster's Dictionary in the 1930s when the show takes place, but it's no joke, and this transformation becomes the touching heart of Some Like It Hot. As for Joe, he finds himself less drawn to virtually any woman who crosses his path, and more attracted to the band's lead singer, "Sugar" (Adrianna Hicks, a perfect addition to the Borle/Ghee team and a terrific dancer and singer in her own right). Obvious complications abound when Joe has to always appear in public as "Josephine."
We'll leave it to Jerry/Daphne, Joe/Josephine, and Sugar to work things out, even as the murderous gangster, "Spats" (Mark Lotito) comes closer and closer to discovering Jerry and Joe's whereabouts. But before we go, a word about the character of "Daphne's" smitten would-be beau, Osgood. That role, too, has been beautifully reshaped, and, while he does seem at first to be there to trigger laughter, it is he who helps Ghee's character discover their true self. Osgood (Kevin Del Aguila, wonderful!) is so integral to the show, and Aguila plays him with such panache, that we can only wish we could spend more time with him.
Gently, without every smacking us in the face, Matthew López and Amber Ruffin's book for the show does an extraordinary job of applying contemporary sensitivities about gender, about the treatment of women, and about race (the company's Black performers play characters who are clearly identified as being Black, and issues of racism are not ignored). None of this comes off as forced or "by the way"; it's all incorporated naturally into the script. After all, these were issues back then as much as they are today, even if we don't generally see them addressed in a Broadway musical.
As for the production itself, director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw has outdone himself with the many high-octane dance numbers and the often intricate staging (including an exceptionally fine chase scene). Scott Pask's Art Nouveau set design and Gregg Barnes' costumes are gorgeous and spot-on appropriate for this show. As for the score, the songs range from bouncy upbeat numbers, to torch songs, to blues, to jazz, to Mexican musical styles. Together, they are a pastiche of the kinds of songs you'd hear in one of those great MGM musicals (MGM On Stage is one of the show's producers). I kept getting flashes of images in my head, of Judy Garland singing "On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe" in The Harvey Girls and of Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, and Debbie Reynolds performing in Singing in the Rain. I imagine you'll make your own connections while viewing what is sure to be Broadway's next huge hit.