There is some major male-female chemistry in the Stratford Festival’s production of Crazy for You, the 1992 trunk musical cobbled out of the Gershwin canon.
It doesn’t come from the romantic leads, though: It’s between the female chorus and the male chorus – two groups who spark up the stage on their own, but make it positively explode when they collide in director Donna Feore’s heat-seeking choreography.
Crazy for You’s plot, such as it is, involves a New York guy named Bobby who falls in love with a Nevada gal named Polly – and then hatches a plan to save her father’s old theatre. It’s self-mocking nonsense, a string of stereotypes and ersatz old-timey zingers threaded through genuine, musical pearls – George and Ira Gershwin songs like They Can’t Take That Away from Me and Nice Work if You Can Get It.
It’s so nakedly contrived, you’d be crazy to take offence. All that really matters is that book writer Ken Ludwig has, inspired by the 1930 Gershwin musical Girl Crazy many of these songs originate from, found a way to bring together an ensemble of Follies Girls with a cohort of Cowboys.
Stratford’s captivating chorines are phenomenal hoofers, as first established in one of Bobby’s fantasy sequences, where they appear as a tap-dancing line of long-legged, strawberry-iced desserts.
As for the comedic cowpokes, they get introduced via a stylized shoot-em-up in a saloon that combines pirouettes with pratfalls perfectly.
But Crazy for You really starts to help you lose your grip on reality when the two choruses team up for a number called Slap That Bass as they rehearse a show that’s aims to resurrect the fortunes of this small town. (What a ridiculous plot, you think, until you remember that’s how Stratford, Ont., was saved in the fifties, albeit with Shakespeare rather than song-and-dance.)
How to describe the exhilaration of watching these young bodies in jubilant motion in Feore’s athletic, yet elegant choreography? This is more Hunter S. Thompson territory, like getting a shot of adrenaline followed by a steady dose of methylenedioxymethamphetamine. It’s a drug-free trip to watch the individuals become a single mass engaged in simultaneous syncopation, then divide again for a single guy to emerge and spin, one, two, three times on a single tap-shoed toe – before falling into the splits.
Here’s what’s affixed in my mind right now – one young woman, legs out at an impossible angle, held up above one fellow’s head as Slap That Bass comes to its triumphant end. But the audience, fed by the energy of the number, won’t stop applauding, his arms start to weaken and her smile is becoming increasingly strained. Then more cheers and, the energy flow reverses: They’re back in position and glowing as the ovation revivifies them. For a moment, everyone in the Festival Theatre is part of a reactor that feels like a perpetual energy source, the potential answer to all our environmental problems.
Are the chorus lines of Crazy for You the solution to global warming? If so, why leave them nameless? The gals are Carla Bennett, Marisa Falcone, Alexandra Herzog, Bonnie Jordan, Ayrin Mackie, Natalie Moore, Kimberley Rampersad and Breanna Willis; the guys, Matt Alfano, Matthew Armet, Stephen Cota, Sean Alexander Hauk, Chad McFadden, Cory O’Brien, Jason Sermonia and Mike Tracz.
They are the stars of Crazy for You. The actual leads include a trio of hilarious, harmonizing cowboys played by Steve Ross (who has better comic timing than a Rolex strapped to Jerry Seinfeld’s wrist), Stephen Patterson and Marcus Nance.
Then there’s Tom Rooney playing a Hungarian impresario named Zangler; aloof and uninteresting in the first act, he resurfaces with a drunk scene in the second that goes on and on and becomes more hilarious the more absurd it gets – unquestionably catapulting Rooney into the ranks of the world’s greatest physical comedians.
An easily neutralized villain named Lank is convincingly cheesed by Shane Carty; playing villainess Irene, Robin Hutton comes close, but misses the cracker.
There’s only one serious weak spot in Crazy for You, though, and it’s at its centre – a cold-fish lead in Josh Franklin. Here’s an actor who, technically, is superb, who sings like Michael Bublé’s younger cousin and dances like a dream. But though his facial features form all the right expressions, there’s an emptiness in his eyes.
Compare and contrast Natalie Daradich’s Polly, who creates her character in a few quick brushstrokes; she may occasionally slip off a note or two and show that she’s sweating, but everything’s done with conviction, and she even slaps the bass strings of your heart in Someone to Watch Over Me.
Franklin’s vacant stare, however, threatens to expose the entire enterprise as hollow spectacle, Crazy for You as an extended version of that commercial where Fred Astaire dances with a Dirt Devil. Look at him and you hear Howard Barker, Britain’s most brilliant theatrical crank, warning of the danger of the musical as an authoritarian art form. “You emerge from tragedy equipped against lies,” he wrote. “After the musical, you’re anybody’s fool.”
But, no, no: Banish those thoughts and look again at those choruses. There is enough ephemeral, physical poetry in their youthful, toned legs and arms and quick-thinking brains going at full tilt to make you ponder you own mortality as much if not more than King Lear does on the same stage. Celebrate and consider the chorus: Shakespeare, an idea, is immortal, but these bodies, our bodies, astonish an instant and then are gone.
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