Encores! has headed from the rainbow-topped valleys of Missitucky to the mythical far West of Arizona — where it’s always cactus time — for a weekend with George and Ira Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy.” This breezy song-and-dance show from 1930 has a saddle-bag full of gold-standard song hits. “I Got Rhythm,” the brothers G. wrote, and plenty of rhythm is what Encores! delivers.
Today’s audiences know George Gershwin mostly for “Porgy and Bess,” “Rhapsody in Blue,” and his later film songs. “Girl Crazy” was more or less the apex of his musical comedy career, pouring out one tuneful melody after another (“Embraceable You,” “Could You Use Me,” “Sam and Delilah,” “But Not for Me”). Not all the songs are brilliant, but they certainly are flavorful.
We also have brother Ira at his most playful. This is a land where you’ll find a chap from Mexico “eating nails and drinking Texaco”; the plains are filled with deep-voiced chorus boys who “sing a la Romberg.”
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Weak link is the book, which was par for the course in 1930. Playboy is exiled west by rich old dad but manages to import Broadway types to his newly established dude ranch. He falls, at first sight, for postmistress Molly, the one gal in town. (Girl: “I handle the mails.” Boy: “All of them?”) That’s one of the few original jokes retained in David Ives’ streamlined concert script.
Ives has cut to the core, to the extent that the show seems to end in mid-sentence. Even so, he strings those golden songs together like popcorn on a Christmas tree; he also makes droll use of the singing quartet of Lonesome Cowboys.
Director Jerry Zaks (from award-winning revivals of “Anything Goes” and “Guys and Dolls”) and choreographer Warren Carlyle (of current Encores! Broadway transfer “Finian’s Rainbow”) keep the evening briskly breezing along, although the librettists don’t give them the strong platform of the aforementioned shows.
The orchestrations, restored from vestiges of the lost originals by Robert Russell Bennett, come across especially well; the music sounds incrementally better than the usual Encores! affair (perhaps due to the different seating configuration). Rob Fisher, founding music director of the series, makes a guest appearance for this entry, happily beating Gershwin’s tempos and playing a surprise trumpet solo.
Wayne Knight leads the cast as New York cabbie Gieber Goldfarb, a role devised for Bert Lahr (although contractual issues prevented his participation). Stage newcomer Becki Newton (“Ugly Betty”) does admirably well as the singing-and-dancing Molly, proving more impressive than fellow TV actor (and real-life husband) Chris Diamantopoulos as the dude. He is overshadowed by veteran stage-ham Marc Kudisch, who mines laughs in a minor role. (Ives has ham-handedly changed the name from Slick Fothergill to Slick Follicle.) Comic contributions also come from Richard Poe in several roles and Mylinda Hull.
Ana Gasteyer, on leave from “The Royal Family,” sparks the proceedings as Frisco Kate; people will inevitably compare her to Ethel Merman, but anyone who actually saw Merman in the role must be near 90 or more. Gasteyer does pretty well in any case, with the handicap of being forced to sing arrangements devised to show off the Merman pipes. It should be noted that in 1930 this voice — singing “I Got Rhythm” and three other songs — was emanating not from the legendary Merman but an unknown 22-year-old making a sensational debut.
“Girl Crazy” was previously transformed into the 1992 hit “Crazy for You,” a wildly successful effort boosted by Mike Ockrent’s canny staging and Susan Stroman’s eye-opening dances. Losing out in the translation were the brothers Gershwin; their songs were featured, but little of the exuberant spirit of music and lyrics was retained. Encores! gives us less of a satisfying musical-comedy experience, perhaps, but the songs sparkle in their unfiltered form.