Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Nutty for the Professor in Nashville
I loved actor/comedian Jerry Lewis when I was a kid. I always looked forward to the Dialing for Dollars Early Show - the weekday afternoon movie on TV - when they would feature an entire week of his films, including 1963's The Nutty Professor. In this movie, Lewis plays Julius Kelp, a nerdy, socially inept university professor who invents a serum that transforms him into a swinging, singing playboy called Buddy Love. It's a parody of the old story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and I loved this silly comedy back when I was ten. However, as I grew older, I became less of a Jerry fan - and when it was announced in June 2009 that he would be directing a musical adaptation of the film on Broadway, I thought it was a real "nutty" idea.
But three years later the show has finally debuted at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville, and last week I went to see it with - I confess - low expectations. I was curious to check it out - especially since Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus Line) composed the music, Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) wrote the lyrics and book, and the cast includes Mark Jacoby (Ragtime, Show Boat) and Klea Blackhurst (known for her Ethel Merman cabaret show). So there was definitely some potential for greatness - but I refused to get my hopes up because it was still a musical version of The Nutty Professor, which just never seemed like the perfect vehicle for belting show tunes. But, fortunately, my initial reservations were proven wrong. Both my partner and I found the show to be a pleasant surprise.
The Nutty Professor is an old-fashioned musical with very little special effects, but it does begin with a bang as Professor Julius Kelp enters after causing an explosion in his school laboratory. And when actor Michael Andrew steps on stage as Julius, he is the Jerry Lewis whom I grew up watching. He could not be more perfect in the role - and later when Julius becomes Buddy Love, Andrew is equally as good as the smooth-talking lounge lizard. The rest of the cast is also outstanding, including Jacoby as the university president and the lovely Marissa McGowan as student Stella Purdy. But the thoroughly delightful Ms. Blackhurst steals the show with her hilarious performance as Jacoby's secretary Miss Lemon. She made me laugh from beginning to end, and her Act Two numbers - a duet with Buddy called "Step Out of Your Shell" and the soaring solo, "While I Still Have the Time" - were highlights of the musical. I would go back tomorrow just to see her raise the roof with her fabulous Merman-esque voice.
These four actors are able to shine so brightly due to Hamlisch's enjoyable score and Holmes' amusing book. Although the music doesn't reach the creative heights of A Chorus Line, many of the songs are quite infectious, including Act One's "Dance to My Own Drummer" featuring Stella and her fellow cheerleaders and Act Two's "Everything You've Ever Learned is Wrong", a catchy number for Buddy and his adoring fan club of students. I also liked "Stella", Julius' ode to the girl of his dreams.
My only criticism with the show is two characters introduced in Act One (both played by Jacoby) - Murray the Tailor and his stereotypically effeminate brother, Maury the Trainer (think Richard Simmons). Murray is kind of funny; Maury not so much - and both are never seen again. I really don't think either of them are necessary, and perhaps their scenes - especially the one in Maury's gym featuring some hunky guys - could somehow be revised in future productions. And hopefully The Nutty Professor will continue on after Nashville, despite the sad passing of Mr. Hamlisch on Monday. His final score for the stage should be heard by many more, and the terrific performances by the show's talented cast deserve to be seen as well. I don't know how the New York critics would respond to this retro musical comedy on Broadway, but I can definitely see audiences across the country receiving it warmly. The Nutty Professor is a fun evening of light entertainment, which I think is certainly worth applauding in this day and age.
The Nutty Professor runs through August 19 in Nashville. For tickets and further information, go to nuttyprofessormusical.com. You can also become a fan of the show on Facebook and Twitter.
Photo credit: Rick Malkin