Jean Louisa Kelly and Jonathan Dokuchitzin The It Girl(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Jean Louisa Kelly and Jonathan Dokuchitz
in The It Girl
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The winner of a movie magazine beauty contest, Clara Bow went to Hollywood with the nickname of "The Brooklyn Bonfire." She became a star in 1926 with Mantrap. Soon, she was being called "The It Girl." So she flaunted "It" in a 1927 silent movie called--what else?--It. That movie served as the inspiration for a new musical at the York Theatre Company titled The It Girl.

This musical and the film share the same basic plot: A snappy little salesgirl falls in love with her boss and uses her wiles to snare him. But Michael Small and BT McNicholl, who wrote the book for the show, have raised the level of conflict in the story to better hold our attention. McNicholl has also given the actors some very clever lyrics to sing to Paul McKibbins' richly theatrical melodies. The show is actually more accomplished than it might appear at the York, because the cast members do not all have "It." Still, the production is definitely worth seeing.

The plot is sweetly framed as a movie within a play. The show opens with a young woman in a red dress peering into a mutoscope, watching a black and white, silent flick that then begins to unfold in the form of a stage musical. Inventively directed by McNicholl, the show occasionally takes on the semblance of a silent film, complete with flickering light and jerky, slapstick antics by the actors. Most of the time, though, the story is simply told with the wide-eyed innocence of the silent era replicated through dialogue filled with period slang, emotive acting, and some nifty black and white (and gray) costumes designed by Robin L. McGee.

There is a winning sense of fun about the piece. The It Girl isn't camp or parody; its intention is that we enjoy the honest earthiness of its heroine and the depiction of a time much simpler than our own. This is one of those delighful musical theater experiences in which a song can evocatively suggest the Midway ("Coney Island") or touch the heart ("Step Into Their Shoes").

Jean Louisa Kelly plays the "It" girl, Betty Lou Spencer. She's stunningly pretty, but she ain't got "It"; nor does Jessica Boevers in the role of her nemesis, a society gold digger. Neither performer can sing or act well enough for the audience to root for or against them with much passion. Fortunately, the rest of the cast is swell. Jonathan Dokuchitz is endearing as the malleable, rich lug sought after by the two women. And Stephen DeRosa is sensational as his soused best friend, performing with such a natural frivolity that you find yourself wishing some of it would rub off on the "It" girl. Then there's Monte Wheeler, who plays a handful of roles and pulls off every single one of them with spectacular élan. More than anyone else in the cast, Wheeler really looks like he just stepped out of a 1920s movie.

McNicholl's direction and Mark Nayden's shoestring set design provide lessons in turning next-to-nothing into almost everything. There is, for example, a scene on a yacht in the second act that is created out of a few white railings, a life preserver, a steering wheel, and a well-chosen projection by Elaine J. McCarthy. It's very impressive, as is the show on the whole.