The creators of new musical “The It Girl” have approached their source material with tremendous respect — but considering that the source is an all-but-forgotten 1927 silent movie called “It,” respect is the last thing required here. Mel Brooks took far more liberties translating his comedy classic “The Producers” to the stage than book writers Michael Small and BT McNicholl do with a movie antique famous only for defining the career of Hollywood’s Clara Bow, the original It Girl.
There’s a certain twisted charm to the idea of turning a silent movie into a stage musical, but the antique patina wears thin fast when the writers put the original movie’s title cards (“Every family tree must have its sap”) into an actor’s mouth and present their storyline as a near scene-by-scene re-creation of the film.
” ‘It’ is a hint of sex with a whiff of intelligence,” we are told. Story follows a salesgirl (Jean Louisa Kelly) with “it” who gets dumped by her playboy boyfriend (Jonathan Dokuchitz) because he suspects her of being an unwed mother.
The unwed-mom confusion — the salesgirl lives with a widow friend (Susan M. Haefner) and her baby — is especially tedious and should be required viewing for anyone who ever complains, “They don’t make ’em like they used to.”
“The It Girl” could easily be forgotten except for the occasional winning tune by Paul McKibbins, who recalls pop classics of the period without mimicking them. Also lyricist and director here, McNicholl is at his jingoistic best with the catchy title “It” song. Elsewhere, his lyrics are equally fun (“A girl who would make a Jesuit give up on being celibate”), if a little too rhyme-free at other more sentimental moments.
The song-writing duo might want to reconsider their ode to snobs, “Out at Sea,” which too closely references the “Ascot Gavotte” number from “My Fair Lady.” With that one production exception noted, Mark Nayden’s black-and-white set designs, together with Robin L. McGee’s equally muted costumes, are wonderfully evocative, never campy, while Elaine J. McCarthy’s period projections give the small playing area miraculous depth.
As director, McNicholl shows flair for staging musical numbers, with a visit to Coney Island a particular roller-coaster treat. But to paraphrase a line from the recently revived “42nd Street,” the most difficult words in the English language are “musical comedy,” and McNicholl’s actors are merely competent when this bee’s knees material needs for them to be inspired.
The exception to this rule is Stephen DeRosa. In a Franklin Pangborn sidekick role, he makes lame lines funny, and when he sings, it’s like Ethel Merman in trousers, which may sound redundant but is thrilling nonetheless. DeRosa has “it” as well as everything else.