Courtesy of Encore Musical Theatre/Michele Anliker Photography
In 1930, a musical called “Girl Crazy” with an infectious score by George and Ira Gershwin, opened its doors on Broadway to a respectable 272 performances. It wasn’t a piece that has held up over the decades, but the music certainly has. When looking at the roster of songs including “But Not For Me,” “Bidin’ My Time” and the memorable “Embraceable You,” you can see why.
Then, in 1992 that iconic catalog of hits - and other classics - such as “Nice Work If You Can Get It” from “A Damsel in Distress” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” were interwoven into a bigger and splashier musical with a new narrative focus. With more laughs to accompany its show-stopping numbers, Ken Ludwig’s “Crazy for You” introduced Gershwin's music in an entirely new light, giving the somewhat dated "Girl Crazy" a kick in the right direction.
And The Encore Musical Theatre Company’s current production of the outrageous “Crazy for You” - running through August - manages to put a fresh, lively, and engaging spin on the romp - with some of the most brilliant choreography you’ll see in a local theatre production this year.
I want you to think about how far a cast can push themselves in terms of momentum in a eye-popping dance number, and then double those expectations. The company of “Crazy for You” - under the choreography of Matthew Brennan - doesn’t just exceed those monumental expectations, they eat them, spit them out, chew it up again, and then make you rethink the already high standards set with last summer’s lofty “West Side Story.”
While “West Side Story” is an entirely different beast onto itself, “Crazy for You” is keen on giving audiences a behind the scenes glimpse of what happens during live theater. You feel this as the show begins with an ensemble eagerly awaiting for their big performance backstage at a prestigious theater in 1920s’ New York City. The theatre is run by the uptight and persnickety Bela Zangler (Evan Smith channeling his inner Jacques Clouseau in all the best ways) while aspiring song-and-dance man Bobby Child (Matthew Brennan - pulling double duties) fails to impress the tycoon in a bid for a career in show biz.
There's a lot of business happening in these earlier scenes as director Daniel Cooney does a striking job pushing the energy to get “Crazy for You” going in rapid succession. Plus the first big and flashy song of the whole musical: “I Can’t Be Bothered Now” will win over any theatergoers who doubted how “Crazy for You” could work in such an intimate setting. Plus it’s fun to watch Brennan let loose and have fun with a comedic role (in past Encore productions I’ve seen him in, he generally plays the straight man).
Bobby is enamored by the bright light of stage stardom, but his viper of a mother Lottie (Gayle E. Martin) insist he give it all up and go into the family business. Likewise his girlfriend, Irene (Sarah B. Stevens) wants him to settle down. And so Bobby caves to Lottie’s demands that he board a train to the tiny and remote Deadrock, Nevada (or as the citizens refer to it: “the armpit of the west”) to foreclose on a building for her. Upon arrival, not only does he realize the building is a beautiful, long-closed theater but that it has been inherited by the tough as nails Polly Baker (Rachel Hafell) whose many attempts to try and save her mother’s theater have been met with swift backlash.
It probably won’t take you long to figure out, but - as all classic early century musicals provide - this is a love story. So, yes, Bobby falls in love with the gorgeous lady within, I’d clock it, two minutes, and of course, she wants nothing to do with the banker sent to destroy her family’s heritage. The results aren’t so predictable in that Bobby decides to throw together a musical shindig in the middle of nowhere, using the clueless - and not so smart- citizens as dancers and singers to help raise enough money to salvage the theatre. And in a textbook comedy scenario, Bobby does it all while hiding behind the identity of Bela Zangler complete with the full getup and thick accent. One might say, the con is on.
While “Crazy for Your” is a by-the-books love triangle, it does have a real Harpo-Marx vaudeville style to it, (Polly falls in love with Bobby as Zangler, only for Bobby to watch in horror as the real Zangler arrives in town and falls in love with the wrong person). It’s a primo case of mistaken identity, and it also proves terrific fodder for what is arguably the most laugh-out-loud song in the whole show: “What Causes That?” in which both Zanglers sing and mimic the other in an eccentric and absurdist musical number.
As if playing one character wasn’t enough or, you know, staging some noteworthy dance sequences, Brennan takes on the crux of “Crazy for You” by the horns, who along with Hafell and assistant choreographer Bryana Hall, lead this brigade of 20 mighty cast members to insane, you won’t know what hit you, heights.
Cooney, along with scenic designer Sarah Tanner, do a terrific job of working together in creating an open playground for some of the many intense triple threat showdowns this show offers - when you see the staging of “Slap the Bass” you’ll know what I mean - utilizing projections and minor scenery that moves in out of place quickly - but then can also be reverted to the side so Brennan and crew can tear up the stage. And tear it up they do.
By the end of the Act 1 finale opening night, audience members were already on their feet.
Music director Tyler Driskill is once again on the ball with Michigan’s finest musicians giving new uniformed life to the Gershwin’s brand of toe-tapping hits and you’ll be elated to spot a few returning Encore favorites to the stage in roles that are both hilarious, sweet, and heartwarming. In particular, the men folk of Deadrock (Sebastian Gerstner, Josh England, Isacc Orr, Shaun White, Tim Brayman, Brennan Parker, Jose Martinez-Chavarria, and a wily Patrick Wallace) are a fun batch to watch travel through the trials and tribulations of the shows more complicated set pieces.
Such complications like a group of attractive and well versed dancers (Abby Derosa, Luciana Piazza, Maeve Cosgriffe, Megan Grosso, Lucy Thomas, Rachel Cupples and Suzanna Litwinka) who roll into town and none of the gun-slinging cowboys have no idea what to do other than run for the hills. In addition, Dan Morrison - another Encore regular - is a blast to watch embody his inner Nigel Throneberry and though his stage time is brief, he makes a solid and memorable impression.
Resident costume designer Sharon Urick - along with trusty wig specialist Chole Gris and assistant designer Marilee Dechart - continues her streak of crafting fine and quality costuming pieces to boost the already sensational production. And prop designer/set dresser Anne Donevan gets major gratification with small set pieces that quietly elevate each scene, for example a sign that explicitly states “No shipping loaded guns” in the post office of Deadrock is all the more hilarious because these townspeople would try to pull a stunt like that. Dan Walker’s effective lighting design doesn’t disappoint either.
So there’s plenty to be crazy about in The Encore’s “Crazy for You” and I wasn’t sure what exactly I was getting myself into with a show that has “Crazy” in the title. But I’ve learned to never doubt the capabilities of what The Encore Musical Theatre Company can accomplish with minimal scale. At one point during the run on opening night, a character in the show talks about how Bobby is “giving theatre a whole new life” and I thought to myself how fitting of an anecdote that was for The Encore in general.
Good news is you’ve got all summer to check out this vibrant and innovative production!
IF YOU GO:
The Encore Musical theatre companies production of "Crazy for You" runs through August 11th. To purchase tickets and check out showtimes click here