In the tree-lined glade of Regent’s Park Open Air Theater, Timothy Sheader’s delightful staging of the Gershwin revamp “Crazy for You” has everything you could wish for, with the possible exception of a roof. For the first 10 minutes on opening night, cast and audience were drenched by rain — but faced with this theatrical charm offensive, no-one cared. “Birds in the tree sing their dayful of song/ Why shouldn’t we sing along?” So goes the verse to “I Got Rhythm,” and never has it sounded more apt.
Sheader, the theater’s a.d., has an uncanny knack for matching material to his unique space and this, the first London revival of the 1992 Ken Ludwig/Mike Ockrent confection, is no exception. The show hinges on the preposterousness of putting the show on in Deadrock, Nevada, the world’s least urban(e) location. That plays all the more strongly in the great outdoors as emphasized by Peter McKintosh’s versatile wooden set.
Winning casting right from Alexis Owen Hobbs’ nicely played lamebrain Patsy through to the beautifully relaxed leads gives the show rare charm. The suitably ostritch-like showgirls don’t overdo the squealing and the lanky, heavy men actually look like unfit townsfolk, not chorus boys.
By keeping a tight rein on the mugging opportunities offered by Ludwig’s gag-strewn book, Sheader ensures that his romantic leads are not overshadowed by pizzazz, as happened with the original staging. McKintosh’s terrific costumes help: Claire Foster’s Polly looks totally at home — think Julianne Moore in fringed buckskin. As her would-be paramour Bobby, U.S. import Sean Palmer carries out his character’s impresario disguise with effortless charm.
But what really makes the pair register is their ease — they partner beautifully — and their sincerity, a rarity in the tits-and-teeth ethos of musical comedy. When they sing “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” they look at one another with ache and affection. It’s underplayed, so their regret at a love lost is unusually moving.
It is, however, the tethering of dance to the Gershwin score that has always been the show’s true motor. Stephen Mear not only danced Susan Stroman’s original heartstopping choreography in London, he was her assistant on the show. That’s abundantly clear in numerous conscious nods: He borrows her groundbreaking handling of props, and the finale has Ziegfeld-style showgirls fanning out in clouds of dry ice.
But Mear has ideas of his own too. His take on “Stiff Upper Lip” becomes a celebration of all things English from tennis racquets and hockey sticks to a collective tea ceremony. In the gloriously extended “I Got Rhythm,” he revolves McKintosh’s set to open the stage right out for a vast, advancing kickline that sends the audience’s pulse-rate rocketing. And while “Slap that Bass” repeats Stroman’s trick of plucking ropes to mimic double-basses, Mear’s vise-like grip on the rhythm, courtesy of Gareth Velentine’s tight dance arrangements, builds the number into the production’s finest.
The production looks likely to be a sell-out and numerous producers were present on opening night, eyeing up transfer potential. Recreating the unique outdoor charm of this staging beneath a West End proscenium arch would be well-nigh impossible, but given a budget to beef up the production values, its big-hearted high spirits might prove seriously infectious.