The Austin Chronicle


Local Arts Reviews

Reviewed by Robert Faires, August 1, 2003, Arts

Crazy for You: Tapping up Smiles

Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater, through Aug. 9

Running Time: 2 hrs, 30 min

Clickety-clack. Clickety-clack. Click click clickety clack clack clack.

Fifty-eight busy feet, spread across the width and depth of the Sheffield Zilker Hillside Theater stage, tapping as one the same rhythmic exultation. Above them, attached to each pair of feet by legs, trunk, and neck, hover 29 faces, each boasting a similar span of gleaming white teeth, framed by lips upturned in rapture.

Happy feet and happy faces: That's the essence of this year's Zilker summer musical, the 45th to be staged on the hillside under the stars. With Crazy for You, Zilker Theatre Productions brings the grand songs of George and Ira Gershwin back to the park for the first time in 43 years, and the occasion has inspired in the artists an infectious jubilation.

The show, as coincidence would have it, is a revamped version of Girl Crazy, the last Gershwin show produced at the hillside. That 1930 musical was reconceived in 1992 by Ken Ludwig and Mike Ockrent, with Ludwig replacing Guy Bolton and John McGowan's original book with a new one -- really a new "old" book, since Crazy for You keeps a Depression-era setting, vaudeville-style humor, and a storyline as improbable as any romantic comedy of the day.

Aspiring hoofer Bobby Child, unable to persuade Broadway producer Bela Zangler to cast him in the celebrated Zangler Follies, accepts a mission from his banker mother to foreclose on a tiny theatre in Deadrock, Nev. No sooner does he arrive than he falls madly for the one woman in the one-horse burg -- whose father, naturally, is the man whose theatre Bobby is there to repossess. Believing Bobby to have the bank's interests at heart, she spurns him. But he decides to save the theatre with a show starring Zangler's showgirls and Deadrock's drawlin' cowpokes (who conveniently turn out to be more than passable entertainers), and he stages it by masquerading as the thickly accented Zangler -- a move that complicates his pursuit of the Deadrock deb.

Director Scott Schroeder and company make no pretense that these are complicated human beings facing profound dramatic conflicts. They know that whatever character there is is there to serve the hokey jokes, cheesecloth-thin plot contrivances, and rhapsodic musical numbers. What matters is not psychological depth; what matters is that the gags garner guffaws and the tap steps earn "oohs" of admiration and delight -- in short, that the show entertains. And these artists aim to deliver.

The 13-piece orchestra, under the baton of musical director Michael McKelvey, produces the lively sound of a big band; when they lead us up a "Stairway to Paradise," it swings. Judy Thompson-Price, the veteran hillside choreographer who's back for her first summer musical in eight years, covers the boards with old-school shuffles, kicks, and the cheerful chattering of rhythm tap, which her dancers execute with skill and style, not to mention obvious joy. The actors tackle the billboard-broad humor with gusto, which typically earns them the roar of the crowd. And even when it doesn't, the performers remain winning.

Leading the way is Kirk Addison, whose Bobby exudes the simple decency and pure heart of the classic male ingénue. When he tells us all he wants to do is dance, there's such a sweetness in his face, such an urgency in his voice, that, golly, you just gotta believe him.

As Polly, the "you" that Bobby is crazy for, Marita Stryker is no less wholesome but her sweetness is seasoned with a frontier spunk and a helluva roundhouse swing. When Stryker plants her feet with her hands on her hips, it's clear her Polly is more than a match for the deadbeats of Deadrock -- which may be why the sight of her leaning against a post, gazing into the distance as she tenderly sings "Someone to Watch Over Me" is all the more affecting. Her voice is the voice of morning, fresh and bright and full of promise.

As you hope to see in romantic comedies, a nice chemistry develops between the two leads. Here, it comes through nowhere more clearly than in the dances. Addison and Stryker move through Thompson-Price's Astaire-Rogers steps in sync and without apparent effort, as if their joined motion were the most natural thing in the world. When they tilt back, lifting their right legs in unison, it looks like a single movement. Illuminated in one of designer Robert Whyburn's moonbeams, Stryker springs into a lift, and Addison seamlessly follows through with the carry upward, the two flowing into each other like water.

It's a move that, like so many of the moves and moments in Crazy for You -- Addison's dance with the Follies chorines; the dueling Zangler routine between a disguised Addison and Neal Gibson; Kelly Bale's saucy turn in "Naughty Baby," Stryker's poignant "But Not for Me," and those full-blown everybody's-got-rhythm tap numbers -- elicits smiles from its audience. And oh, how we need those smiles these days. In a lyric that shows how little has changed in 73 years, Bobby sings, "The world is in a mess./With politics and taxes/And people grinding axes,/There's no happiness." Anything that offers relief from that turmoil is a blessing. According to the song, you can get a big bass fiddle and "slap away your trouble." Or you could just treat yourself to the happy feet and happy faces at the hillside.

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