I've been making a list of nice things to say about Theatre Memphis' production of No, No, Nanette. For starters, Christopher McCollum's set design is striking, although the costumes can be garish and the Jolly Rancher-colored lighting makes everything look like someone's Easter basket got dizzy and vomited.
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.
That wasn't very nice either, was it?
And for fans of Roaring '20s culture, there's some top-notch tap and certifiably hot Charleston action. And ...
Well, folks, that's about all I've got. And the hot choreography was cold comfort.
It's easy to see why Theatre Memphis might give Nanette a spin around the dance floor. Last season's Crazy for You, a tap-laden reworking a 1930s musical by George and Ira Gershwin, was a huge hit with audiences and Ostrander judges alike. Nanette's an adorable relic of the 1920s and should appeal to the same sensibilities, right? And 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 happily married attorney to buy the girls off.
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. Awkward! There's also a romantic side plot featuring the title character, 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 1920s 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.
I'm generally impressed by Andre Bruce Ward's costume shop and was excited to see what the maestro might whip up for Nanette. This time, the colors onstage are best viewed with a side of Dramamine.
Somehow guest director Mark Robinson failed to find sustained charm in this lighter-than-a-soap-bubble offering from a uniquely charming period in American history. His characters lack definition, relationships barely exist, and the chorus is never integrated into the action until it's time to dance.
Hanford and Pettet share some spectacular dance moments, but Donna Lappin is Nanette's only real standout. 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 a show with two intermissions.
No, No, Nanette is a silly, pointless show with such inane dialogue any production has to be exceptional to carry the day. This production had its share of saving graces, but it was never exceptional.
Through July 1st