It’s summertime, when the livin’ is easy: and Gershwin might be on my mind right now. Summer musicals are taking over the stages at summer festivals in Stratford & Niagara-on-the-Lake. Crazy For You –the show I saw today at Stratford—is a second-generation Gershwin musical, Ken Ludwig’s inspired re-purposing of songs that had previous lives in shows created on Broadway back before WWII. George’s tunes and Ira’s lyrics are so well-known that they seem to segue effortlessly out of the plot unfolding before us.
This show is counter-intuitive, because it seems to go against the usual practice. We’re accustomed to encountered musicals (or operas) where the words came first, and then were set to music. Ludwig had a brilliant idea, one that’s been done in other musicals. Never mind starting with the book. Assemble some amazing tunes instead, and then work from there.
With Crazy For You..? Imagine a popularity contest assembling the best songs written by anyone in the 20th Century. The results could look a lot like the list of songs in Crazy For You. How can you miss with
- “I Got Rhythm”
- “Embraceable You”
- “Someone To Watch Over Me”
- “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”
- “Nice Work If You Can Get It”
- “But Not For Me”
I’m reminded of other shows built backwards from the songs, such as The ABBA musical Mamma Mia! or the Beatles film Across the Universe. The well-known set-pieces threaten to over-shadow the story, which is a mere pretext for the beloved & familiar music.
What Ludwig does that’s truly remarkable is to weld together these golden moments into something surprisingly coherent. The music doesn’t really stop the story –the way the ABBA musical stops dead on those famous songs—so much as bring it to life. It’s a truism that in a musical, the song takes over when words are no longer enough. Several times we were in a magical place where an all-too-familiar song such as “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” sounded brand new, emerging organically from the dialogue.
While there were some remarkable star turns that I shall allude to in a moment Crazy For You is first & foremost a showcase for the ensemble values of the company. The creative team of Director & Choreographer Donna Feore and Musical Director Shelley Hanson get brilliant air-tight work from everybody in this huge show, presented with 20+ orchestral players. I can’t decide whether it’s Feore’s choreography or Hanson’s tight hold on the musical values of the performance that makes the most decisive contribution: but they depend on one another for one of the most cohesive and physical displays I’ve ever seen. The excellence from every side in the Festival Theatre almost makes the stars an after-thought. If you’re a fan of dance you’ll love this show. They never stop working, seeming to get more physical as it goes on.
Even so I should mention Josh Franklin and Tom Rooney. While Rooney’s heroics are perhaps expected by now –wonderful physical comedy to go with a larger than life persona—Franklin as Bobby Child is new to me, a charismatic presence who can dance, can really sing and yes, he can act too. The prime reason Crazy For You flies so high is because we care what Bobby feels, the one who is truly crazy for someone.
Crazy For You continues at the Stratford Festival until October 12.