By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot,” considered by many film enthusiasts as one of the greatest movies of all time, would seem to be a perfect vehicle for adaption into a musical comedy. Originally based on a 1935 French film, “Fanfare of Love,” it was adapted into a 1959 black and white film by director Wilder and his legendary co-writer I. A. L. Diamond and starred Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.
Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, the successful team behind Funny Girl and Carnival!, made the first attempt in 1972, creating Sugar, an homage to Monroe’s character in the film, Sugar Kane. Elaine Joyce starred in the title role along with co-star Tony Roberts and the late Robert Morse and Cyril Ritchard. (When the show was produced for the first time in London’s West End 20 years later, the title was changed back to Some Like It Hot.)
Now, 50 years after Sugar, composer and co-lyricist Marc Shaiman and co-lyricist Scott Wittman have opened their own version of the funny tale. It’s initially set in post-Al Capone Chicago, where two hapless musicians witness a mob hit and disguise themselves as members of an all-woman band in order to escape.
The musical’s score is as biting and powerful as bathtub gin and the lyrics are as perfectly suited and persuasive as a Tommy gun. With one breakout number after another, Shaiman and Wittman have created a 100 proof blockbuster hit that seems destined to sweep the Tonys and enjoy a well-deserved long stay on the Great White Way.
Taking on the leading male roles are two-time Tony Award winner Christian Borle as Joe, the saxophone player and ladies man, and J. Harrison Ghee, as Jerry, the double bass player. Their friendship extends back to their days as youths when they were street dancers, the Tip Tap Twins. It is established they are the closest of friends and their camaraderie has been the only capital the two have enjoyed as of late in “You Can’t Have Me (If You Don’t Have Him).”
Set during the waning days of Prohibition (“What Are You Thirsty For?”), the music also quickly establishes NaTasha Yvette Williams as Sweet Sue with a belt more powerful than any that comes out of a bottle. Williams’ incredible ability to scat to the superb orchestrations arranged by Charlie Rosen and Bryan Carter are clearly evident in the first act as she leads the players and ensemble in “I’m California Bound,” “Zee Bap” and the title song (“Some Like It Hot”) just prior to intermission and in a reprise that opens the second act.
Adrianna Hicks (Six) plays the pivotal role of Sugar Kane to absolute perfection. A tortured, sexy member of Sweet Sue’s all-girls ensemble, it is quickly noted she has an occasional nip from a flask and has a penchant for saxophone players, all of whom have had her number. “A Darker Shade of Blue” is a torch song that ascends slowly as Hicks sings out her mournful woe and the orchestra reaches a fevered pitch, soaring into a crescendo of brass that brings the audience to tumultuous applause.
Sugar leads Josephine, the now-disguised Borle, and Daphne into “Take It Up a Step,” a number that spills over into a scene where the gangster Spats (Mark Lotito) articulates his intent to rub out the “Tip Tap clowns” before federal agent Mulligan (Adam Heller) can get them to act as witnesses in the killing of informant Toothpick Charlie (Charles South) and his two thugs. Spats and his henchmen pursue Joe and Jerry, not knowing they should be looking for Josephine and Daphne. The ensemble soon takes part as “Take it Up a Step” continues to build with the delightful standout Angie Schworer playing the role of Sue’s assistant Minnie.
Some Like It Hot’s story is played for laughs, but does contain some sensitive LGBTQ+ issues. After all, it is 2022 and discussions during the COVID shutdown suggest it’s a different time for musical theatre. Including a more racially diverse and inclusive cast and creative team is now a given. Beyond that, the thought of men donning women’s clothing just to elicit laughter is now barely tolerated by high profile critics and certain segments of the LGBTQ+ community alike, who consider previous vehicles with cross-dressing men like Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire as transphobic and disrespectful.
Book writers Matthew Lopez (The Inheritance) and Amber Ruffin have handled their task of giving dimension to the characters and providing respect to their feelings and others who might feel their own stories are being given short shrift just for laughs. When Harrison’s Jerry becomes Daphne, she finds she enjoys her new persona much more than expected.
At the Coronado Hotel in San Diego, Millionaire Osgood Fielding III (the redoubtable Kevin del Aguila) speaks to his untold riches in “Poor Little Millionaire.” Instantly smitten by Daphne as she explores her feminine side, he woos her, never taking no for an answer. He wears down Daphne’s resistance, taking them all to his favorite cantina, a little spot, where they can let their hair down and have it curl, all at the same time (“Let’s Be Bad”). In the second act his “Fly, Mariposa, Fly” signals his determination to have Daphne as his soulmate.
Del Aguila’s ever-present and broad smile indicates to Daphne that it is real and she begins to enjoy the attention and the benefits of his longing for a romantic relationship. Joe is confused, but the book has Daphne explaining, “I don’t have the word for what I feel. I just feel more my self than I have all my life.” Ghee adds: “The world only reacts to what it sees. And in my experience, the world doesn’t have very good eyesight.” Audience members signaled their approval with shouts and thunderous applause. Ghee’s performance in the ensuing song “You Coulda Knocked Me Over with a Feather” gives insights into Daphne’s feelings and solidifies the performer’s status as a top star.
Meanwhile, Joe/Josephine allows Osgood’s pursuit of Daphne to gain him access to the millionaire’s harbored yacht, where he woos Sugar in the guise of a mysterious German screenwriter with the preposterous name Kiplinger Von Der Plotz. As the two “Dance the World Away,” sparks fly and the complicated situation gets even more complicated. That’s because Spats and his gang are hot on their trail, followed by the feds who are tailing them.
Joe/Josephine/Kip wants to confess to Sugar of his feelings, but he is mired in a sea of lies and deceit, but somehow we know his character will bounce back, just which one seems to be the question. Sugar’s other two solos – “At the Old Majestic Nickel Matinee” in Act One and “Ride Out the Storm” in Act Two – reflect on her misty recollections of old and her determination to persevere. Hicks sings her heart out on both occasions as she does in “A Darker Shade of Blue.”
Directed by Casey Nicholaw, the Tony Award (direction) and Olivier Award winner (choreography) for The Book of Mormon, Some Like It Hot has some of the best choreography envisioned for the Broadway stage with big, brassy numbers accentuated by tremendous tap sequences. It all adds to the authenticity of the era and his associate choreographer John MacInnis, with whom he worked earlier on Broadway with The Prom and Mean Girls, should be given a nod for his input as well.
Nicholaw allows the final sequences to devolve into a slapstick pastiche of opening and closing doors as the chase goes on throughout the hotel’s facilities. It’s probably true that talented book writers like Lopez and Ruffin could probably not improvise something as hilarious, but it ultimately does allow for a neatly tied package at the musical’s end and, most importantly, one that the audience seems very happy to accept.
Some Like It Hot, directed by Casey Nicholaw, with music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman, continues its run at the Sam S. Shubert Theatre, 225 West 44th Street, in New York City. For tickets click here or call Telecharge at 212-239-6200