SOME LIKE IT HOT
Book by Matthew López and Amber Ruffin
Music by Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Based on the MGM motion picture
Directed and Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
Shubert Theatre, New York City
Beautifully crafted musical comedy, light as air yet with a lingering fragrance of potent joy, and as poignant and full of heart as you need it to be, is back on Broadway….and it doesn’t get much better than this.
Some Like It Hot, the newest incarnation of this most particularly American of all art forms, could have felt like an unfashionable throwback, set as it is in the 1930s and based on an iconic, but potentially problematic, movie, with a jazzy score (Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s terrific songs here are more reminiscent of their work on the underrated Catch Me If You Can and TV’s Smash than it is of their irresistible Hairspray) and tap choreography to rival 42nd Street. But no…
In fact, it proves anything but, thanks to inspired casting, some sensitive repointing of the original story and crackerjack good comedy by book writers Amber Ruffin and Matthew López: Some Like It Hot delivers the kind of uplifting good time that should send audiences out into the night with sappy grins plastered all over their faces while they text their friends demanding that they book tickets. Joy meets Woke meets all-embracing here in a way that very few shows manage…
In one of the most remarkable cases of having it’s cake and eating it that I can remember, this sparkling dose of escapism married to modern sensibilities manages to be transporting enough to entrance traditional theatregoers while at the same time ensuring that people who have felt marginalised and shut out are brought along on the beautiful train ride. It looks effortless, in the way that dreamy musical comedy needs to, whether on screen or stage, but features rigorously disciplined and clever work from a crack team of Broadway craftspeople, led by director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw who has never done anything finer, at the top of their games.
The trans community had voiced reservations over the use yet again, after the Tootsie and Mrs Doubtfire musicals, of “man in a dress” as a comic trope, but Ruffin and Lopez sidestep this issue by having Jerry, one of the hapless musicians forced to flee in disguise after witnessing a ganglands massacre in Prohibition Chicago, realise their truest self once they are in their alter ego Daphne’s wig and frocks. It’s done with such a lightness of touch, and played with so much panache and sensitivity by the jaw-droppingly lovely J Harrison Ghee, one of the show’s two breakout stars and who identifies as non-binary, that it adds a freshness and kindness to what could have been an icky cliché. When this Daphne dons the look, the effect isn’t funny at all, it’s enchanting, in the way that classic transformations from chrysalis to butterfly usually are. Extra emotional punch is added by having Osgood, the eccentric millionaire who falls for them and who leads a double life of his own (an utterly delightful Kevin Del Aguila) realise who Daphne is before Jerry does. Truly heartwarming.
Having set that up so well, the show does give us carte blanche to laugh at Jerry’s partner in crime, Joe (Christian Borle, quite restrained by his own standards, but still a masterclass in exquisite musical comedy performance) who makes an exceptionally unusual woman when got up as the hapless Josephine, a fact referred to often and hilariously by NaTasha Yvette Williams’s fabulously sassy band leader. The show softens, rightly, the romantic gaslighting of female lead Sugar by Joe, but it’s still loaded with comic panache.
The other breakout star referred to earlier is Adrianna Hicks as Sugar (the role immortalised on screen by Marilyn Monroe). But whereas the screen Sugar was a product both of her time and Monroe’s particular persona, a ditzy, breathy blonde with a fondness for the bottle and getting repeatedly involved with the wrong kind of men, the new musical incarnation is a much richer, tougher creation. For starters, she’s a Black woman…but this isn’t colour-blind casting: Ruffin and Lopez have deliberately written her this way, giving her a poignant speech about sneaking into cinemas as a kid and never seeing anybody who looked like her on the screen. Hicks gives her attitude, warmth and just enough vulnerability to make us care, but without ever shading her as a victim. She’s a leading lady to fall in love with, and her power-packed vocals swoop and soar.
Everything here works, from Charlie Rosen and Bryan Carter’s brassy, big band orchestrations to Gregg Barnes’s sparkling costuming, and Scott Pask’s glossy art deco box of a set. Nicholaw’s staging is oil-smooth accomplished and reaches a blissfully inventive climax with a tap dance chase sequence late in the second half that is an exhilarating object lesson in stagecraft.
This Some Like It Hot actually feels like a traditional musical comedy from the storied Golden Age of Broadway, but joyfully transmogrified into something inclusive, relevant and deeply satisfying. Any NYC theatre season that includes this life-enhancing confection, the equally unmissable Kimberly Akimbo and the arrival of West End hit & Juliet amongst it’s new musicals might reasonably be considered vintage. “Nobody’s perfect” are the last words in the screenplay of the original movie, but this life-enhancing new musical pretty much is. It’s not just hot, it’s sizzling.