Chris Diamantopoulos and Becki Newton in Girl Crazy
(© Joan Marcus)
Chris Diamantopoulos and Becki Newton in Girl Crazy
(© Joan Marcus)
An oversize cartoonish quality pervades Jerry Zaks' staging of Girl Crazy, now being presented by City Center Encores! From the cutouts of cacti that dot the horizon just above the orchestra (crisply conducted by Rob Fisher) to Peter Kaczorowski's zealously colorful lighting to many of the performances, this is a production that revels in the screwball zaniness of the story (book by Guy Bolton and Jack McGowan, adapted by David Ives). It's an approach to this material that makes for a lively evening, but it also means that some of the piece's genuinely romantic heart is lost.

The musical, which features a score by George and Ira Gershwin, unfolds in an exceptionally mythologized American West, where Easterner Danny (Chris Diamantopoulos) has been sent by his father to forget his nightclubbing and woman-chasing ways. On one hand, his father's idea works: On arrival, Danny instantly falls hopelessly and exclusively in love with Molly (Becki Newton), the cowgirl who delivers mail to his father's ranch. But Danny's fondness for nightlife also travels with him, and he converts his dad's ranch into a nightclub and casino.

Danny's transformation of the place works instantly, not only bringing a bevy of beauties from the East looking for men, but also attracting nightclub chanteuse Frisco Kate Follicle (Ana Gasteyer in the role that made a star of Ethel Merman) and her card-dealing husband Slick (Marc Kudisch). Of course, no story of the Wild West tale would be complete without a sheriff and some outlaws, and Girl Crazy has a subplot about a couple of local bad guys (Daniel Stewart Sherman and Jeremy Beck) who are constantly shooting the town's lawman. Ultimately, Gieber Goldfarb (Wayne Knight), the cab-driver who's driven Danny from Manhattan, becomes the sheriff.

When these stories are front and center in Girl Crazy, Zaks' approach to the material works perfectly. Knight's befuddled and buffoonish Goldfarb is the ideal nebbishy fish-out-water to play opposite Sherman and Beck's dumb-as-dirt men in black hats. Similarly, Gasteyer, who might channel "The Merm" a bit too heavily at first, delivers a spitfire and iron-lunged performance, knocking the extended notes of the Gershwins' "I Got Rhythm" all the way to the other coast. Curiously, Kudisch, who can deliver over-the-top with crowd-pleasing panache, gives a somewhat muted performance as Kate's womanizing husband.

Unfortunately, the show's comic romance requires more subtlety. Diamantopoulos unquestionably delivers a sweetly engaging and beautifully sung performance as Danny, but Newton is often overly strident in her performance as Molly. The two actors -- real-life husband and wife -- have a grand chemistry when they're performing one of choreographer Warren Carlyle's elegant dances, but when it's time for opposites-attract banter, or when Molly lets loose the melancholy "But Not For Me," Newton's full-throttle approach saps the pair's relationship and the character of their charm.

The cumulative effect is that Girl Crazy often feels rather one-note, and for a show that begins with the comically lethargic "Bidin' My Time" (gloriously sung by Glenn Seven Allen, Benjamin Howes, Jack Doyle, and Carson Church), one can't help but wish a little bit of the show took the song's advice to heart and had a little less zip.