Review: Some Like It Hot Serves Old-Fashioned Broadway With a Twist
Sometimes you just want a brassy, sassy, unapologetically fun musical — and that's exactly what's on the bill at the Shubert Theatre with Some Like It Hot. It's a guaranteed good night on Broadway, a glorious throwback that also manages to retrofit a well-known story for today.
It's based on the 1959 MGM film by Billy Wilder about two Chicago musicians who witness a mob killing and need to skip town before they end up floating in Lake Michigan. Joe (Christian Borle) and Jerry (J. Harrison Ghee) decide to disguise themselves as Josephine and Geraldine and join the traveling all-girl band run by Sweet Sue (NaTasha Yvette Williams). But when they board the train that will take the band across the Rockies, Jerry introduces himself as Daphne. "It just came out naturally," the newly christened Daphne explains to Josephine as they conspire in the ladies' washroom.
They are soon interrupted by Sugar (Adrianna Hicks), the band's vocalist, who dreams of Hollywood stardom. Joe dreams about getting her in bed, and this becomes a distinct possibility when they arrive in San Diego and Joe once again changes identities, becoming an Austrian screenwriter named Kiplinger Von Der Plotz.
This ludicrous comedy fusing big band and drag would seem the ideal source material for a musical — so much so that Peter Stone, Jule Styne, and Bob Merrill turned it into one called Sugar, which played over 500 performances on Broadway from 1972-73. This new Some Like It Hot differs from the film and that earlier musical in significant ways, as fans might have already spotted in the brief plot description.
Book writers Matthew López and Amber Ruffin keep everything that is great about the original screenplay while adding their own flair. They have pushed the time of the story from 1929 to 1933, placing our characters in both the Depression and Prohibition and raising the stakes for our hungry musicians. They have expanded the roles of Sugar and millionaire Osgood Fielding III (a delightfully zany Kevin Del Aguila). No longer merely a rich weirdo, Osgood (who has a double identity himself) is given a backstory that explains the source of his wealth and his family's tradition of defying convention in the name of love. Rather than a comic B-plot, the romance between Osgood and Daphne emerges as the most charming in the show. Purists might bristle at this artistic liberty, but if you rewatch the film, you can easily spot the breadcrumbs that led to this perfectly justifiable choice. Nobody's perfect, but López and Ruffin come awfully close with a book that delivers multiple laughs per minute while providing a solid dramatic structure for the songs.
And what songs they are! Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have written their best score since Hairspray, proving themselves to be the reigning kings of pastiche. It opens strong with the rollicking Prohibition number "What are You Thirsty For," which Williams leads with a big voice and even bigger presence. The jaunty "I'm California Bound" will have you dreaming of a cross-country trip on Amtrak, while the inclusion of the song "Let's Be Bad" (which Shaiman and Wittman originally penned for the television drama "Smash'') is perfectly repurposed at the top of the second act, when the characters embark on a trip to Tijuana. That's where Del Aguila sings the sweetly enchanting "Fly, Mariposa, Fly," a song that forces us to take a second look at both Osgood and Daphne.
As Daphne, the irrepressible Ghee undergoes the most dramatic character arc in the script, embracing the audience in joyous revelation with "You Coulda Knocked Me Over With a Feather." One of the most naturally gifted comedians working on the American stage, Borle (who contributed additional material to the script with Funny or Die chief creative officer Joe Farrell) gives a masterclass in musical comedy throughout, and especially shines in "He Lied When He Said Hello." And Hicks gives us all goosebumps with the 11 o'clock number "Ride Out the Storm." These songs are all in the second act, a typically sleepy realm in musical theater. Not here: Some Like It Hot is the rare musical that gets more exciting as it charges toward its spectacular climax.
That comes in the form of an incredibly intricate and hilarious tap-dance chance scene called "Tip Tap Trouble," which one can only view with jaw dropped. Director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw has outdone his best work in The Book of Mormon and Aladdin with a staging that embodies timeless Broadway showmanship.
It helps that he's working with some of the best designers in the business: Scott Pask's Art Deco set brings the 30s back to the Shubert Theatre, while Natasha Katz's lighting facilitates the dimension shifts that are integral to musical-theater magic: Characters sing in their own worlds of deep blue and magenta as the set and characters seamlessly melt away. Charlie Rosen and Bryan Carter's muscular orchestrations give the show its classic Broadway sound, which reaches every corner of the theater under Bryan Ronan's flawless sound design.
Gregg Barnes has designed gorgeous costumes that just as dynamic as the script, as Chicago's autumnal palette transitions to the vibrant pastels of San Diego. Daphne's costumes tell the story of an individual becoming more comfortable in a new identity: An initial frumpy dress, the product of desperate improvisation, gives way to looks that are increasingly fitted and fabulous. It's a journey that many audience members, having taken the brave step to leave the shore of expectations and discover their truest selves, will find very familiar.
All of this amounts to a thrilling new musical with an old-school vibe. Some Like It Hot is a sizzling example of everything that Broadway does best, and it is not to be missed.