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‘Nice Work’ a blissful Gershwin brothers jukebox musical

Justin Brill and Erica Stephan star in the Gershwin-suffused musical comedy, "Nice Work If You Can Get It," at Theater at the Center. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

“Nice Work If You Can Get It” is pure, unadulterated bliss. It’s a gem of a jukebox musical, and before you turn your nose up at that particular genre you might want to note that the crucial difference here is that the jukebox just happens to be jam-packed with more than 20 sensational songs by those dazzling geniuses of words-and-music, George and Ira Gershwin.

Adding to the “Delishious-ness” (I’ve borrowed that spelling from one of their song titles) is the fact that the production of this 2012 Broadway show — now receiving its “Chicagoland premiere” at Theater of the Center in Munster, Indiana, a venue dominated by Chicago talent — features co-direction by William Pullinsi and choreographer Danny Herman, and instantly brings back to mind the glory days of Pullinsi’s Candlelight Dinner Playhouse. It also comes with a cast that would feel right at home on Broadway (where leading man Justin Brill has, not surprisingly, already been seen).

Laura Freeman and Stef Tovar in “Nice Work If You Can Get It” at Theater at the Center. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
Laura Freeman and Stef Tovar in “Nice Work If You Can Get It” at Theater at the Center. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

‘NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT’

Highly recommended

When: Through June 5

Where: Theatre at the Center,

1040 Ridge Rd., Munster, Indiana

Tickets: $40 – $44

Info: (219) 836-3255;

www.TheatreAtThe Center.com

Run time: 2 hours and

30 minutes with one intermission

The show, a classic Roaring Twenties-style farce awash in Prohibition Era bootleggers and the New York elite, features a snappy new book by Joe DiPietro based on material by those Gershwin-era masters, Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse (the source of “Anything Goes”). A zesty, richly comic mix of vintage stereotypes and up-to-the-minute quips, the story has been retrofitted with cleverly deployed Gershwin classics so that they not only form a perfect fit with the characters and plot twists, but make you hear the songs (mostly familiar, but with a few lesser known gems tossed in) in a fresh way.

The year is 1927, and the story is set in motion at a dockside warehouse in New York, where crates of illegal booze are being loaded off ships by an eccentric trio of bootleggers – Billie Bendix (Erica Stephan), Cookie McGee (Stef Tovar) and Duke Mahoney (John Stemberg). Most of the tale will then unspool at the posh Long Island family estate visited by Jimmy Winter (Justin Brill), the charming but feckless playboy whose fearsome mother (spicy Debbie DiVerde) owns the place.

The petite but no-nonsense, tomboyish Billie — tough on the outside but romantic on the inside — encounters inebriated party-boy Jimmy just long enough to learn that he has the perfect place to hide a huge shipment of gin. At the same time, there is an instant chemistry between the two. But Jimmy is getting ready to marry his fourth wife, Elena Evergreen (Julie Baird), a tease of a modern dancer whose father, Max (Rick Rapp), is a U.S. senator up for re-election, and whose dowager aunt, Estonia Dulworth (Laura Freeman), is a rabid prohibitionist.

Suffice it to say there is mayhem and madness aplenty as the bootleggers are pursued by the authorities and, after hiding their stash in the basement of the Winter mansion, quickly disguise themselves as maid, butler and handyman while wedding preparations get underway.

The show is in perpetual motion as a quintet of chorus girls led by Jeannie Muldoon (sparkling Annelise Baker) add plenty of flash in their lavish wardrobes of fringed flapper dresses and lingerie (Brenda Winstead’s costumes are fabulous), and as one unlikely romance after another finds its own fascinating rhythm.

Brill, a small, wiry, dazzlingly fleet song-and-dance man, is sensational, and he has met his step-for-step match in Stephan, a superb singer-dancer-comedian you may have caught earlier in Drury Lane’s “White Christmas.” The two form an edgy, combative pair, but when they dance (as in the spectacular number set to “S’Wonderful”), it becomes clear they are meant for each other. They are a stellar pairing on every level, with Brill flying through “I’ve Got to Be There” and “Do, Do, Do,” and Stephan doing a knockout job with “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Treat Me Rough” and “But Not For Me.”

Without giving away too much, it should be said that before it’s all over there are many other notable pairings and surprise revelations. Tovar, who sings and dances in the most natural way, is in top comic form, as is Freeman, who brings down the house with her hilarious take on “Looking for a Boy.” So is the off-kilter pairing of Baker, as the sassy blonde showgirl in quest of a royal title, with her “Duke,” a meeting that she and Stemberg seal in a memorable version of that perfectly Gershwinesque love song, “Blah, Blah, Blah.”

Throughout, music director Bill Underwood and his six-piece band do the Gershwins proud, and thanks to the performers’ diction and sound designer Barry G. Funderburg, every divine lyric is crystal clear. The place-defining sets by Richard and Jacqueline Penrod are perfection.

One final note: Here (along with Porchlight Theatre’s “Dreamgirls”) is another perfect example of the kind of musical that could easily become a hit were it transferred to the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, that intimate but quality-starved venue Broadway in Chicago fills with incomprehensibly bad programming. But don’t hold your breath. And meanwhile, take the easy drive to Munster for this Gershwin treat.

Justin Brill plays Jimmy, surrounded by his chorus girl pals, in “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” at Theater at the Center. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
Justin Brill plays Jimmy, surrounded by his chorus girl pals, in “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” at Theater at the Center. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)