‘Nice ticket if you can get one’
The word jukebox came into common American usage about the same year George Gershwin died but the concept of a jukebox musical might well have captured the old showman’s imagination.
NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT is just such a beast, a compilation of some of the two Gershwin brothers’ most charming hits with a new book written by Joe Dipietro for a 2001 New York premiere.
But since the book is hung around material from Guy Bolton and PG Wodehouse, a writing team whose phenomenally successful musical comedies saw them dominate Broadway in the late 1920s and 1930s, you’d be hard pressed to know the show wasn’t a full-minted original. Ovation’s UK premiere of the show Upstairs at the Gatehouse certainly mixes the ingredients into a perfect cocktail.
1920s New York – the land of speakeasies, jazz and chorus gals. Prohibition’s in full swing, but, like the nice work of the title, you can get booze if you try. When bootleggers Cookie McGee (David Pendlebury) and Billie Bendix (Jessica Elizabeth-Nelson) find the cops (Harry Cooper-Millar) on their tail, they need a patsy to hide their moonshine. That unknowing patsy is playboy Jimmy Winter (Alistair So), shortly to embark on his fourth misguided marriage to ‘the world’s greatest interpreter of modern dance’ (Charlotte Scally), and whose house both needs servants and has a cellar where ‘butler’ Cookie and ‘cockney maid’ Billie can hide their stash.
The cast is further fleshed out with a temperance aunt you know will love the sauce when she accidentally hits it, a senator in need of re-election, a dumb guy named Duke and a dumb gal who thinks he is one, and more from the well-stocked cupboard of Wodehousian characters well beyond Bertie Wooster and Jeeves.
It’s the songs, of course, that make the show, among them Someone to Watch Over Me, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off and ‘S Wonderful, and the six-piece band led by Chris Poon and a universally excellent 12-strong cast deliver perfectly from first note to final crescendo.
The two leads Alistair So as the pink-suited Jimmy (a nod to Gatsby, there, the greatest of all the 1920s bootleggers) and Jessica-Elizabeth Nelson as a tomboyish Billy are especially charming, funny and convincingly in love across the barriers of class, wealth and Jimmy’s endless supply of unsuitable leggy broads. The set-pieces are also hilarious, none more than Charlotte Scally’s Delishious, when the spoiled Broadway star takes a bath as she tells us how imponderably lovely she is.
The choreogaphy’s as clever and precise as it has to be for 12 dancers in a traverse space where they’re almost dancing cheek to cheek with the front rows on either side.
All in all, the standard’s so high you wonder why you’d spend £80 quid to see this in the West End when you can have singing, dancing, acting and music of this quality for a quarter of that price up in Highgate.
Nice ticket if you can get one. ‘S Wonderful, ‘s marvellous. You got to be there.
Photography by Darren Bell
NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT by George and Ira Gershwin
Director: John Plews. Produced by Ovation.
Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate,
12 December 2018 to 27 January 2019
Box Office: www.upstairsatthegatehouse.com/020 8340 3488
Reviewer David Weir’s plays include: Confessional (Oran Mor, Glasgow) and Better Together (Brockley Jack, London).