by Chris Davis
I’ve been making a list of nice things to say about Theatre Memphis' production of No, No, Nanette. For starters, the early 20th-Century design is striking although the costumes can be garish and the Jolly Rancher-colored lighting makes it worse. Act II looks like someone’s Easter basket got dizzy and vomited all over the stage.
Wait. I said I was going to list good things and I meant it.
Unforgettable actors like Bennett Wood, Jude Knight, Emily Pettet, and Rob Hanford are cast in roles for which they will never be remembered.
Ugh. Sorry. That wasn’t very nice either, was it?
And, for fans of Roaring-20’s culture, there’s some top-notch tap and certifiably hot Charleston action. And...
Well folks, that’s about all I’ve got. And while I won't deny that this lede is an artificial setup I wanted to like this show and sincerely tried to thread together a silver lining. No luck.
It’s easy to see why Theatre Memphis might give Nanette a spin around the dancefloor. Last Season’s Crazy For You, a tap-laden reworking a 1930’s-era musical by George & Ira Gershwin, was a huge hit with audiences and Ostrander judges alike. Nanette's an adorable relic of the 1920’s, and should appeal to the same sensibilities, right?
Well, maybe it's a home run for audiences drawn to old familiars, charmed by young people striving, and happy to see a play with no damn cuss words. Otherwise— or at least from my perspective—this Nanette played itself out like a wooden high school musical with theatrically-inclined teachers cast in a few choice roles.
The plot is pure cotton candy. We're treated to the story of Jimmy Smith, a successful and generous Bible salesman who's been financially assisting— some might say "keeping"— three down-at-heel girls. Worried that his depressingly frugal wife might find out Jimmy does what any innocent victim of his own largesse might. He sends his attorney, a happily-married man on the make, to buy the girls off. How could anything go wrong?
As the farce unfolds Jimmy, his niece Nanette, the attorney, both wives, and all three golddiggers wind up in the same Atlantic City beach house at the same time. And yes, it’s awkward. There’s also a superfluous romantic subplot featuring the title character, a nice, wholesome gal yearning to experience the wild life before settling with a boring boyfriend. But this shotgun-blast of a musical could have easily been titled Get it Jimmy, Five’s a Crowd or Leave it to Lawyers.
Popular music changed in the 1920’s as a newly jazzed youth culture clashed with mom and pop. The thoroughly modern sounds are reflected in a vibrant score by Vincent Youmans with sweet and sassy lyrics by Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach. It’s easy to give yourself over to woozy numbers like “Too Many Rings Around Rosie," but some of the show’s biggest hits are misses in a production where nobody from the pit to the lighting booth seems to have an affinity for the material. With cloying rhymes about baking sugar cakes Nanette’s best known song, "Tea for Two" is about as exciting as a great horking dose of cod liver oil.
And while we're on the subject of taking one's medicine, I’m always impressed by the output of Andre Bruce Ward’s costume shop, and was excited to see what the maestro might whip up for Nanette. This time the colors on stage are best viewed with a side of Dramamine.
Somehow Guest Director Mark Robinson failed to find any sustained charm in this lighter-than-a-soap-bubble offering from a uniquely charming period in American history. His characters lack definition and relationships barely exist. Worse, he’s treated the chorus like a church youth pageant, and brings all the kids onstage in a lumbering clot where they remain disconnected from the action until it’s time to dance.
Putting lots of people on stage with nothing to do creates a vortex of negative energy so Robinson’s Nanette moves with the jerky stop-and-start momentum of a virgin stick shift operator driving uphill.
Rob Hanford has some spectacular dance moments but Donna Lappin is Nanette’s only real standout performer. She's a perfect crab in the role of Pauline, a classically inspired menial, constantly threatening to quit her job as the Smith family maid. Her success however, only highlights other problems.
Pauline is an old fashioned clown role, and her best bits are between scene solos. Vaudeville and Burlesque performers called these jokey interludes “blackouts.” They were used to buy time for costume changes or sobering up the plate-spinner. Pauline's a time-killer, and even Lappin’s big scene with a remote controlled vacuum cleaner fails to deliver enough comic goodness to justify inclusion in an extremely long, mostly lifeless show with two intermissions.
Not quite three, but more than one.
A confession that some readers may find surprising given my history with frothier musicals: I was genuinely excited about No, No Nanette. The 1920’s Radio Network is just about the only thing that gets played in the Davis house these days. Quirky vintage jazz turns ordinary chores into a Max Fleischer cartoon and it’s not uncommon to find Pop in the kitchen recklessly stacking bowls while Ma and the twins flap around the living room with a broom and dustpan. And yet, at the top of the second intermission the twin I took with me gave a more succinct review than I could muster.
“Daddy,” she said in a small pitiful voice, her luminous brown eyes framed by a perfect flapper do. “This play is giving me gas pains.” I knew what she meant.
Theatre Memphis still does exceptional work. Bo List’s uptempo take on Hedda Gabler was a joy and even if Amy Hanford’s Chicago wasn’t especially original, it was an effective crash course in the old razzle dazzle. But there’s a lot of redundancy in what happens out on Perkins Ext. these days. Even knockout dance numbers get old when they start to resemble all of the other knockout dance numbers. Forget about spice for a tic. Variety is life and re-creating success is never as interesting as merely creating.
Sidewalk fashion may be bending toward excess and the eyeball-melting glo of the 1980’s, but the 1920’s and 30’s are also in. The internet made a wide variety of historical music available to young musicians looking to stand out and a crappy economy combined with morally-repressive politics to inspire bars with speakeasy themes and depression-era specials. As hard as it might be to believe given the epically sorry state of this revival, No, No Nanette could have been one of the season's hippest happenings.
As always, I encourage folks to see for themselves. And I’m always happy to hear from dissenters who think I should consider a fallback career.