If ever a gay anthem needed to be retired, it is Jerry Herman’s treacly “I Am What I Am” from “La Cage aux Folles.” Songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman achieve that formidable feat with not one but two back-to-back songs in their new musical, “Some Like It Hot,” which opened Sunday at the Shubert Theatre.
Early in Act 2 of this show based on Billy Wilder’s 1959 classic movie, the “real” millionaire Osgood Fielding III attempts to romance Jerry, whom he thinks is really Daphne, because Jerry and his good friend Joe have dressed up as women so they can join an all-girl band to escape the Mob during Prohibition. (If you haven’t seen the movie, forget trying to make sense of this synopsis.) Jerry is doing his friend-in-drag a favor so Joe can use Osgood’s yacht to seduce the band’s lead singer, Sugar. On stage, the inspired Kevin Del Aguila takes over for Joe E. Brown from the movie version to deliver a sweet song of love and liberation titled “Fly, Mariposa, Fly.” The butterfly here is Jerry dressed up as Daphne, and as cunningly played by J. Harrison Ghee (taking over for Jack Lemmon in the movie), this Jerry/Daphne wonders aloud if Osgood has instead mistaken him/her for a caterpillar.
“Fly, Mariposa, Fly” is remarkable for a couple of reasons: It is one of the very few songs in “Some Like It Hot” that is not delivered at a decibel level threatening to blow us out of our seats. (The oppressive sound design is by Brian Ronan.) “Fly, Mariposa, Fly” is also the only genuine love song in a musical based on a movie in which the other couple, Joe and Sugar (played by Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe), fall in love despite her meeting him when she thinks he is a woman.
It’s nice to report that the couple treated as a complete joke in the movie finally find real love. The new book by Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin follows that revelation with Jerry/Daphne’s declaration of self-discovery “You Coulda Knocked Me Over With a Feather.” (I can report that Ronan’s sound design coulda knocked me over with its rock-concert volume, but I digress.)
“Some Like It Hot” may be the first musical in which the utterly ridiculous secondary couple, Osgood and Daphne, is the one that earns our empathy. That’s definitely hot. What throws cold water over everything is how the primary couple, Joe and Sugar, remain chronically mismatched throughout the show.
In the movie, Sugar is out to marry a millionaire after having been left with the “fuzzy end of the lollipop” by several saxophone-playing jerks. In the new musical, Sugar is out to become a movie star, which has nothing to do with all those former lousy lovers. That disconnect between the character’s goal (stardom) and her past (bad boyfriends) is a problem. In the movie, Monroe beguiles and wins our approval by trying not to repeat Sugar’s past mistakes with men. Sadder but wiser, she’s out to marry a millionaire. As played by Adrianna Hicks in the musical, though, Sugar now takes a bulldozer approach to achieving her dream — and seducing influential men is her game plan. Nice.
In recent seasons, Broadway hasn’t been kind to musicals based on movies that feature female drag, “Tootsie” and “Mrs. Doubtfire” being the two biggest misfires. “Some Like It Hot” approaches the drag issue in a profoundly different way. Here, it is not J. Harrison Ghee’s Daphne or Christian Borle’s Josephine who comes bedecked in the tackiest bejeweled gowns (by Gregg Barnes), who wears the most garish makeup (by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira), and who delivers every song as if she were Bette Midler being impersonated by RuPaul. No, that over-the-top performance comes courtesy of the show’s female lead. Hicks certainly has the vocal chops, but even here, she is sabotaged by the deafening sound design, which renders her vocals as if she were merely lip-synching in the best drag tradition. This Sugar doesn’t so much seduce Joe as she runs him over in her quest to be a movie star.
Regarding female drag, the movie and the musical handle it in drastically different ways. In Wilder’s classic, Tony Curtis makes for a passable female, while Jack Lemmon as Daphne is pure camp. In the musical, it is the reverse. Ghee eschews Hicks’ grand gestures to impersonate a female character who resembles Eve Arden, arguably the most grounded and clear-eyed character actor of Hollywood’s Golden Age. This Daphne exudes genuine femininity and grace, and that’s no small feat for an actor who, in heels, is at least a foot taller than even the tallest member of the chorus.
Borle’s comic timing, as usual, is impeccable, whether he is playing Joe or impersonating Josephine or a German screenwriter whom Sugar believes is her ticket to Hollywood. Borle in drag, however, isn’t visually funny. He’s just a sad-looking mess. Lopez and Ruffin’s book attempts to rectify this major problem by making Josephine the butt of jokes about her age. Which is the least of this character’s problems. It is fast becoming a cliché in today’s theater that every straight white male character needs to be deeply flawed, while everyone around him is a victim. Joe’s 11 o’clock indictment and confession “He Lied When He Said Hello” is the show’s “Carrie” moment. When the song is over, it’s difficult to tell which character defect is worse: Joe’s womanizing or Sugar’s intelligence. Whoever thought a screenwriter had any clout in Hollywood? Couldn’t Lopez and Ruffin have made Sugar’s German meal ticket a producer?
With the exception of “Fly, Mariposa, Fly,” you will leave “Some Like It Hot” humming the tunes because you could have hummed them going in. At their very best, John Kander and Fred Ebb knew how to reinvent showbiz pastiche to deliver genuinely original anthems like “All That Jazz” from “Chicago” and the title songs from “Cabaret” and “New York, New York.” Shaiman and Wittman’s work is more journeyman-like; while the lyrics often delight, the music is merely peppy, repetitive and, yes, loud.
Casey Nicholaw directs and choreographs with his usual flair for parody. He mines real romantic gold in the scenes between Ghee and Del Aguila, who’s pure cockeyed bliss every single moment he’s on stage. Nicholaw’s direction of Borle and Hicks strands them in another musical. As a choreographer, Nicholaw overuses tap to keep the show moving at a relentless pace that leaves the audience, not to mention the chorus, exhausted by intermission. In the movie, the three leads are members of an all-girl band. In the musical, they have to do double duty, and also perform as a tap-dancing trio. Never has more been way too much.