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No, No, Nanette

Rosie O'Donnell and Sandy Duncan lead Encores! diverting and snappily cast revival of the jazz-age musical comedy. logo
Rosie O'Donnell and Sandy Duncan
in No, No, Nanette
(© Joan Marcus)
The story goes that in 1919 Boston Red Sox owner Harry Herbert Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in order to put money into a pre-Broadway version of the musical, No, No, Nanette. While the tale may not be completely true, it works to Frazee's ever-lasting credit now, as evidenced by the City Center Encores' diverting version of No, No, Nanette, gleefully directed by Walter Bobbie. Indeed, only a curmudgeon would take up negative adjectives against a show which tries so consistently to follow through on a lyric in its most-reprised Vincent Youmans-Irving Caesar song: "I want to be happy, but I won't be happy till I make you happy, too."

If the occasionally exhilarating production -- based on the 1971 Broadway revisal of the 1925 tuner -- isn't yet 100 percent realized, that may have to do with Bobbie and choreographer Randy Skinner not having sufficient rehearsal time to wring maximum energy from the amount of song-and-dance entertaining they've chosen to present. There seems to be no end to it -- and no end of talent radiating from the snappy cast they've collected to revisit the saga of bubble-headed Nanette (Mara Davi), who goes to Atlantic City for the weekend against the "no, no" dictates of almost-millionaire protectors Sue Smith (Sandy Duncan) and Jimmy Smith (Charles Kimbrough), and would-be fiancé Tom Trainor (Shonn Wiley).

There's no shortage of pep and pizzazz spread around the stage, especially as three young women (Nancy Anderson, Jennifer Cody, Angel Reda) whom Jimmy has been financing descend, while Sue's friend Lucille Early (Beth Leavel) thinks it's her hubby Billy (Michael Berresse) who's the libidinous benefactor. Meanwhile, the Smith's maid Pauline (Rosie O'Donnell) is on hand to crack wise about it all.

In the flibberty-gibbet Jazz Age, no excuse was needed for cast members to burst into song or put on tap shoes and resoundingly hammer the floor board, but it's a pleasure to see so many performers still able to do so 80 years later. First among equals is Duncan, in the role Ruby Keeler took on in the 1970s. Her signature smile blinding the paying customers, she fronts one of the "I Want to Be Happy" incarnations and buoyantly leads "Take a Little One-Step."

Leavel grabs the stage and wraps it up with the third-act "The 'Where-Has-My-Hubby Gone' Blues," and also commands the stage alongside Berresse with the show-stopping "You Can Dance With Any Girl." Wiley and Davi, joined by the indefatigable, sharply-dressed (by Gregg Barnes) chorus, do wonders with the irrepressible "Tea for Two" -- which, incidentally the audience eventually gets to sing, too. Kimbrough repeatedly puts his abashed grin to work on "I Want to Be Happy," and looks as if he's so happy as to be giddy, especially when Anderson, Cody and Reda are vamping him to desired comic effect.

Then there's O'Donnell, who has the script's drollest lines and knows precisely how to land them. For much of the time she's pushing a recalcitrant Hoover around, and it becomes a metaphor for her ability to hoover up the yuks. Plus, she taps like a demon. (Eat your heart, Barbara Walters!)

Conducting the irresistible Youmans melodies is Rob Fisher, who's back on his old Encores! podium for this outing, and who does absolutely right by the inspired orchestrations Ralph Burns ran up in 1971. Burns included two pianos, which especially enliven this overture, played here by Joseph Thalken and Todd Ellison. Yes, yes, the fun of No, No, Nanette starts when Fisher lifts his baton and extends right through the ukulele-enhanced curtain call.

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