Ivy Austin, Michael Simon Hall, Christine Bokhour,Howard Kaye, Katie Allen, Nick Verina, Sidney J. Burgoyne,and Staci Rudnitsky in Manhattan Madcaps of 1924(Photo © C. Elliott)
Ivy Austin, Michael Simon Hall, Christine Bokhour,
Howard Kaye, Katie Allen, Nick Verina, Sidney J. Burgoyne,
and Staci Rudnitsky in Manhattan Madcaps of 1924
(Photo © C. Elliott)
When most of us hear the phrase "jukebox musical," we think of shows built around songs of the rock and roll era, like Mamma Mia! and All Shook Up. But don't forget that one of the earliest examples of the form is My One and Only, for which Timothy S. Mayer and Peter Stone wrote an original if intentionally derivative libretto to showcase a bunch of Gershwin standards. Manhattan Madcaps of 1924, a sweet summer confection featuring nearly two dozen songs written by the legendary team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, is thankfully much more reminiscent of that show.

Perhaps having taken their cue from The Drowsy Chaperone, the creators of Manhattan Madcaps are pretending that this is a "lost" Rodgers & Hart musical. Accordingly, the libretto is credited to one "Jerzy Turnpike" -- but it was actually crafted by Isaiah Sheffer, co-founder and artistic director of Symphony Space. Paper thin, it's not so much the book of a musical as it is an excuse to let the audience hear such evergreens as "Nobody's Heart," "Spring is Here," and "Manhattan," plus lesser known items like "At the Roxy Music Hall," "Simpatica," and "Disgustingly Rich," in a framework other than an out-and-out revue.

The characters are nothing if not generic. First we meet Casey (Howard Kaye) and Cassie (Christine Bokhour); he's a prodigal son returning to New York with some kind of secret that won't be revealed until the end of the show, she's a bronco buster who has made the bold decision to try to continue her career in the Big Apple. Then there are Gary (Nick Verina) and Gracie (Katie Allen), newlyweds from out of town who want to make a life for themselves in the city of dreams. Jeanette (Ivy Austin) is a musical comedy performer who resists the urgings of a guy named Johnny (Michael Simon Hall) to join his experimental theater group in Greenwich Village. The Manhattan Madcaps octet is completed by mayoral candidate Stonewall Moskowitz (Sidney J. Burgoyne) and his faithful booster Manhattan Mamie (Staci Rudnitsky, who resembles a young Kaye Ballard). Predictable relationship issues and complications ensue, but you won't be surprised to hear that all ends joyfully for everyone concerned.

Although Sheffer's book is not especially witty, it provides just enough in the way of plot and character to make the songs more effective than if they were simply presented with no context or connective tissue. For example, I once saw a licensed Rodgers & Hart revue in which three early versions of the song that eventually became "Blue Moon" were sung one after another. The sequence was interesting, but not very entertaining. For Manhattan Madcaps of 1924, Sheffer had the brighter idea of having the adorable Austin as Jeanette sing the "Blue Moon" precursors -- "Prayer," "Manhattan Melodrama," and "The Bad In Every Man" -- at various points in the action to reflect her emotional state at each moment, but we never hear the music and lyrics in their final form. Instead, there's a cute joke: "Jeanette, how often do you sing that song?" "Oh, not too often. Once in a blue moon." The audience ate this up with a spoon.

The entire cast is game and talented, though Hall's singing voice could be a bit stronger and Kaye seems oddly distracted at various points during the show. Director Annette Jolles sets a crackling pace and, for the most part, has kept the performers from trying too hard for laughs. Regina Larkin's choreography is appropriate.

Ryan Scott's set, dominated by a circular piece that looks like a huge, art-deco dinner plate onto which a '20s Manhattan skyline and other slides are projected, is stylish and eminently serviceable. Madeline Cohen's costumes are spot-on, and Brian Aldous' lighting is far more professional than one would expect in a show with this sort of budget. The highest praise of the production goes to musical arranger-director-pianist Lanny Meyers and his two superb musicians, Todd Sullivan (violin and viola) and Yair Evnine (cello and guitar). They do full justice to Rodgers & Hart's great songs, making them sound as fresh as the day they were minted. One final bit of good news: The show is performed without any sound amplification whatsoever!

Manhattan Madcaps of 1924 is billed as the first offering of "Summer Stock on Broadway," a new annual series of shows to be performed at Symphony Space. It's a good start, and one that will have audiences looking forward to future productions.