March 3, 2009 in City

Frivolity meets fancy footwork

By The Spokesman-Review
 

The lyrics perfectly state the theme of “No, No, Nanette”: “I want to be happy, but I won’t be happy, till I make you happy, too.”

So this bright and cheerful Spokane Civic production goes to work, making us happy for two solid hours.

And you know what?

It works.

This 1925 musical is devoid of all heft, not to mention plot, but I walked out of this show humming the tunes to “Tea for Two” and “I Want to Be Happy” and convinced that tap-dancing is high art, especially when you can do it like Cameron Lewis (as Billy Early).

Those canny musical-comedy impresarios of 1925 – including Otto Harbach, Irving Caesar, Vincent Youmans and Frank Mandel – knew what they were doing. To heck with seriousness – all people really require are sprightly tunes, big tap-dance numbers and candy-colored fun.

This production, directed and choreographed with immense verve by Jean Hardie, is weak vocally, but it more than makes up for it with three great tap numbers, some enjoyable lead performances and one knockout supporting performance from Susan Hardie as the maid, Pauline (a role made famous by ZaSu Pitts in the movie).

Our first glimpse of Pauline tells us everything we need to know. She’s lying on the sofa, reading a movie magazine, shoving a vacuum cleaner back and forth with her free hand. In her maid costume, she looks like a cross between Olive Oyl and Imogene Coca.

Susan Hardie evoked the great Coca throughout this show, with her hangdog air combined, improbably, with immense self-confidence. She delivered her lines with perfect deadpan panache.

At one point, this beleaguered maid looks at the audience and says, “There is no room in this house for self-expression.”

Hardie steals the show from a comedic standpoint, but the romantic leads are charming and effective as well. Cameron Lewis is a suave leading man who looks like he stepped out of an old Arrow collar ad. His tap-dancing is first-rate and he did the best job of anyone at selling his songs.

Ashley Cooper, as Lucille Early, is a walking Gibson Girl – slim, tall, elegant and with a dancer’s grace. She’s the perfect model to show off the stunning flapper dresses designed by costumers Jan Wanless and Susan Berger.

Kathie Doyle-Lipe and Robert Wamsley are endearing as Sue and Jimmy Smith, the rich couple who drive the plot. Their big number, “Take a Little One-Step,” was a showstopper, with Doyle-Lipe suddenly shifting into a wild buck-and-wing and even a few gymnastic flips.

Finally, Jessi Little was sympathetic and charming as Nanette, a girl who just wants to have fun, 1925-style.

That gives the show five romantic leads, about three more than the normal quota, which tells you all you need to know about the plot. Everybody (except Pauline) is involved in romantic misunderstandings and mistaken identities. Everybody goes to Atlantic City for a holiday; love wins out in end.

By the way, Peter Hardie’s set nicely evokes Atlantic City in its heyday, especially in the finale, when the party lights shimmer above the boardwalk.

Kudos also to music director Trudy Harris and her pit combo, which planted those great tunes firmly and professionally in our heads, so we could walk out dreaming about tea for two and being simply – happy.

“No, No, Nanette” continues through March 15. Call (509) 325-2507 or contact TicketsWest at (509) 325-SEAT, (800) 325-SEAT or www.ticketswest.com.


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