Monday, October 19, 2020

355. NO, NO, NANETTE. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Ruby Keller, Bobby Van.
NO, NO, NANETTE [Musical Revival] B: Otto Harbach and Frank Mandel; M: Vincent Youmans; LY: Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach; AD/D: Burt Shevelove; CH: Donald Saddler; S/C: Raoul Pene du Bois; L: Jules Fisher; P: Pyxidium Ltd.; T: Forty-Sixth street Theatre; 1/19/71-2/4/73 (861)
Susan Watson, Roger Rathburn.

The enormous, unexpected success of this 1925 musical hit, conceived and produced (with Cyma Rubin) by Harry Rigby, ushered in a definite trend in the revival of long-forgotten American musicals of the century’s first quarter. Nostalgia was the primary incentive driving audiences to see these shows their parents and grandparents may have experienced, and producers capitalized by employing old-time stage and screen stars to play the leading roles. Patsy Kelly and Ruby Keeler, favorites of the 30s, made long-delayed returns to the Great White Way, and soon became the toasts of New York.

No, No, Nanette’s creators also had the perspicacity to engage that genius of 1930s Hollywood choreographic spectacle, Busby Berkeley, as production supervisor, although a book about the show, The Making of No, No, Nanette suggests his contributions owed more to his name’s legendary value than to his artistic contributions.

Company of No, No, Nanette.

Burt Shevelove performed a miracle of comic staging and book revisions, avoiding the campy flavor often found in such golden oldie revivals. The approach was a straight, sincere one despite the material’s intrinsic inanity. All the stars were very well liked, the tap dancing sequences proved sensational (especially one featuring the redoubtable and still agile Miss Keeler), and the charm of the old songs—“Tea for Two” and “I Want to Be Happy” in particular—gave everyone a delightful tingle. Raoul Pene du Bois’s gorgeous designs played an enormous role in furthering the show’s value as sheer entertainment without any hint of social or literary pretension.

Ruby Keeler and company.

Plot, music, and choreography each went their merry way without that sense of integration that was to evolve in musicals of a slightly later generation. Everything meshed smoothly, however, to provide a perfect evocation of the Roaring Twenties spirit thumping at the heart of the show. Even with such success, though, one of the producers refused to be content. My friend, Mimi Turque Marre, the widow of Michael Turque, one of the show's stage managers, recalls that once the production was running, co-producer Cyma Rubin kept firing one person after the other. (This is a correction of my initial account, which mistakenly noted that the firings were during the production process, not after the show opened.)

Reviews were almost universally enthusiastic, although some hemmed at the book’s concerns with a middle-aged Bible salesman (Jack Gilford) in Atlantic City, his three adorable girlfriends, and his hiring of a young lawyer (Bobby Van) to prevent his wife from making mush of his mashing. Martin Gottfried used such words as “satisfying,” “charming,” and “enjoyable” in his notice. One of the “genuinely thrilling production numbers”  he pointed to had a group of chorines balancing on beach balls; to stage it, the show even hired a “beach ball instructor,” Ernestine Mercer. Shevelove’s book revisions improved the original, said many, because the result left “just the right amount of sentimental silliness to make us feel . . . a pleasing, rueful nostalgia for that long-vanished time,” noted Brendan Gill.

Ruby Keeler as Sue Smith and Patsy Kelly as Pauline garnered raves, the former for her sparkling dancing (notably in “Take a Little One-Step”), the latter for her laugh-getting abilities. Jack Gilford as Jimmy Smith was cute and clownish, and Roger Rathburn as Tom showed great promise, but the highest accolades were awarded to the marvelously versatile Helen Gallagher as Lucille Early. She was “electrifying,” said Walter Kerr, in a show-stopping number she and Bobby Van, as Billy Early, did in a variety of twenties’ dance styles. Gallagher’s role required her to remove her trademark bangs and come on strong as a sexy vamp, a feat she accomplished with aplomb in a torch song called “Where-Has-My-Hubby-Gone-Blues.”

Helen Gallagher and company.

The company included Susan Watson as Nanette, Loni Zoe Ackerman as Betty Brown, Pat Lysinger as Winnie Winslow, and K.C. Townsend as Flora Latham. Among the 36 members of the ensemble were Ed Dixon and Mercedes Ellington.

Jack Gilford, Ruby Keller, Patsy Kelly, Bobby Van, and company.

Gallagher nabbed a Tony for Best Actress, Musical; Kelly got one for Best Supporting Actress, Musical; and Van landed a nomination for Best Actor, Musical. The show itself won an Outer Circle Award. Shevelove took home a Drama Desk Award for Musical Book, and a Tony nomination for Best Director, Musical. Donald Saddler won a Tony for his choreography, and a Drama Desk Award as well. Roger Rathburn received a Theatre World Award. And Raoul Pene du Bois earned a Joseph Maharam Foundation Award as well as a Tony, for his costumes.

In 1973, the show was produced in London with a British cast. It also had multiple international stagings.