The Gershwins, man.
George and Ira, they just knew what they were doing. Their songs might be perfect, if not for all singers or all characters, then for the right ones. These melodies, which we all know a good number of even if we didn’t know their origin, are universal and personal, touching and witty, economical and expansive. And they’re still so good.
This makes “ ’Swonderful,” the latest at Musicalfare, that much easier to settle into. It’s a musical revue that you can actually sit through, if you aren’t itching to dance through, without asking yourself “why” and “when” – as in “will it stop?”
Revues often fail to push past their flimsy premises and lazy entertainment. Their precious nostalgia notwithstanding, they do nothing for the creative juices poised to pump through audiences veins by more invigorating theater. A trip down Memory Lane can be enjoyable, but the jukebox format sometimes tarnishes good memories instead of reigniting them.
The structure for “ ’Swonderful,” co-directed and co-choreographed by Michael Walline and Doug Weyand, offers a simple approach to an over-approached format: Roughly 40 songs are packaged into five mini-musicals, with characters and scenes and scenery to boot. It mirrors “Crazy For You” or the now-on-Broadway “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” both of which fit trunks of Gershwin numbers into a single-line narrative. They’re what jukebox musicals were before boom boxes came along.
“ ’Swonderful,” though, is a hybrid of the two offerings. These short stories give songs the freedom to exist within context and without guilt. Their singers have characters to sing from, and reasons for us to understand them, even if the Gershwins’ writing is efficient enough to not need a broader backdrop.
Walline and Weyand have a knockout ensemble, and use them in wonderful, responsible and surprising ways.
John Fredo, Musicalfare’s ultimate leading man, knocks it out of the park with his renditions of “I Got Rhythm” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” during a 1920s-set New York City romance. Kelly Jakiel is his ingénue, and plays the heck out of this period part. It’s nice to see her again in a triple-threat role. Broad gestures, elongated movement, heavy winks, it’s all here.
Walline’s direction fits his usual homage approach, both to a dance idiom and to an era that seem frustratingly out of date. This is where so much modern musical theater movement came from, and Walline exorcises it masterfully. His 1930s-set Paris romance – titled “An American In Paris,” - what else? – is similarly divine, with Jakiel and Marc Sacco playing star-crossed lovers.
There are loose ends here and there in pacing in both of Walline’s sets. They could use a little tightening, if only to make their exquisite choreography fly more freely. Some of it fell on the ensemble, who at times felt unsure of their collective rhythm. Still, there’s little about what’s been crafted that doesn’t fit.
Weyand’s two sets are equally respectful of their source material, though in slightly more daring ways. “Of Thee I Sing,” a 1950s-set New Orleans torch story, gives us Charmagne Chi and Nicole Marrale Cimato as a sister act being pulled apart by a love interest. Chi’s central role is the first of the night’s comedic angles, and she works it to juicy, devastating effect. Chi might not be the beltiest lounge-act belter, but she can chew the bone off a torch song. “The Man I Love” and “Summertime” never sounded so hilarious and soul-sinking, simultaneously if you can believe it. True pathos.
The crowning achievement of the evening, however, goes to Cimato in the 1940s-set Hollywood backlot fantasy, “Funny Face.” Cimato, who’s been carving a comedy corner out of local stages for the last few years, gives a performance that is just so hands-down marvelous that you’ll reach for the rewind button. It’s no exaggeration, not in the slightest, to say that Cimato’s comedic chops are poised to stand right up there with the brightest musical theater comedians. She sets and breaks rules of physicality, femininity and genuine star power. It’s exhilarating to watch, a joy to laugh at, and hard to breathe through.
The final scene, set “anywhere” in modern day, is the only hiccup in this inventive program. “He Loves And She Loves” does us the annoying disservice of reminding us of the show’s concept. It’s an epilogue when all that’s required at this point is a soft landing from our globe-trotting escapism. Sacco’s charming performance aside, it’s the only part of the evening that’s structurally uncharming.
With material this solid, and a company so capable, less is always more.
“ ‘Swonderful: The New Gershwin Musical”
Three stars (Out of four)
Through May 19. Presented by MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main St., Amherst. Tickets are $39. Call 839-8540 or visit www.musicalfare.com.