Think back to September of 2016 when Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert produced its musical within a comedy, The Drowsy Chaperone. A lonely shut-in known only as ‘Man in Chair’ reminisced about his favorite 1920s musical, which then came alive before him. His show of choice may well have been an affectionate parody about a socialite chaperone who liked to drink, but it could just as easily have been No, No, Nanette; they’re practically from the same, silly stock.
The musical comedy farce of young Nanette who wants to raise a family but would like to raise a little hell first (but not too much), continues at Gilbert’s Hale Centre Theatre until March 31. With its easy, likable score, its tap-dancing, its soft-shoe-shuffle, and its ‘G’ rated plot full of illogical but lighthearted frivolousness, No, No, Nanette is the theatrical equivalent to comfort food; a stateside version of the flapper comedy, The Boyfriend, a world where a kindly millionaire pays for everything, a young ward is destined to be a respectable lady, and all the boys and girls head to the beach where most of the frothy shenanigans of secret identities, cover-ups, and a little blackmail take place. There’s even a sassy maid and a vacuum cleaner with a life of its own.
When it had its initial run in 1924, No, No, Nanette didn’t do so well. Before its Broadway opening the following year, the show had to go through several re-writes, cast changes, and a re-vamped score. Two new songs were added, and that was easily the best move. Both Two for Tea and I Want To be Happy became the standout hits, songs that went on to became standards for easy-going jazz bands and singers for years, the kind that helped Lawrence Welk’s TV variety show become an industry.
The nonsense plot revolves around three golddiggers who have taken advantage of the kindly Jimmy Smith (Dan Stroud) by merrily taking his money. Jimmy enjoys using his wealth to help others, it’s what makes him happy, so when Betty from Boston (Phoebe Koyabe), Winnie from Washington (Lizzy Jensen), and Flora from San Francisco (Angela Kriese) attempt a little blackmail, the benevolent Jimmy seeks the advice of his fast-talking lawyer, Billy (Nathan Spector). The advice is to keep all the women away from the NYC home and secretly face them with a payoff at the family owned Atlantic City cottage by the shore. That should do it, except for the fact that everyone else in Jimmy’s life, including his wife, the young Nanette, her fiance, the boys and girls of the chorus, even the sassy maid, all happen to be going to that same cottage by the shore at the same time.
The original production had three acts with two, short intermissions, but as Hale’s production has done (as most productions now tend to do) there is just the one intermission; acts two and three are combined. And while the show may have entertained audiences since the roaring twenties when it was considered a contemporary piece, it’s the Broadway revival of 1971 with all of its tweaks and alterations that now tends to be the production of choice. Looking at the score as listed in the program, it’s the ‘71 version you’ll see at Hale Centre Theatre.
As is often the case at Hale, the potency of this frothy concoction is both the dancing and the strength of the voices. Director and choreographer Cambrian James really is The Drowsy Chaperone’s Man in Chair, someone with a clear love and affection for the family musical genre of more innocent times, a show full of energetic tap-dancing, soft-shoe-shuffles, bouncing balls on a beach, and romantic swoons, and it’s he who brings the musical alive at Hale’s theatre-in-the-round. When the millionaire’s wife Sue (Sydney Davis) enters with the boys of the chorus and tap-dances a reprise of I Want To Be Happy, the sequence has nothing to do with the show – it’s not even a part of the scene, which is really a private conversation in song between the elderly Jimmy and his young ward, Nanette – yet it remains a show-stopping crowd-pleaser, and its moments like these that Hale audiences savor, and with good reason; they’re so much fun.
The best voices, and certainly the strongest, belong to Rochelle Barton as Lucille, whose Too Many Rings Around Rosie puts the show into high musical gear, and to Holly Payne’s young Nanette. Hale Centre Theatre audiences may remember Payne cast so well as Esther in its recent Meet Me in St. Louis production. Here, with her head covered in a twenties styled black bobbed wig, she’s equally as good, adding vocal strength not only to the show’s two most famous songs, but also to the title song, No, No, Nanette. Interestingly, because of Payne’s huge likability factor, you tend to notice when she’s not around, which, when focusing on the central theme of those three goldiggers and Jimmy’s embarrassment of needing to pay them off, seems to be a lot. Her story of wanting to party by the beach before committing to marriage with the tall Tom Trainer (Jacob Goodman) is surprisingly slight; it becomes more a subplot in the character’s own musical.
The humor is mild, though the predictability of the ever bubbly story and all of its reveals will entertain a Hale audience, with some of the best lines going to the smart and somewhat saucy maid, Pauline (Kinsey Peotter). Like Benson from TV’s Soap, she’s just about had it with being the hired-hand, and has a snarky remark for everything. When the doorbell rings and no one wants to answer it, after a pause, Pauline declares to everyone with her usual sardonic tone, “Oh, I’ll get it. Save your shoe leather.”
No, No, Nanette may evaporate the moment the show is done, but while you’re watching it, the whole thing works. It’s a musical of innocent past times, where golddiggers are really quite wholesome, wives are amazingly understanding, lawyers are not quite the liars you think, a young ward’s hell-raising party habits wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, and having lots of money really does buy happiness. It does nothing but simply entertain. The Man in Chair, that lonely shut-in from The Drowsy Chaperone, would love it.
No, No, Nanette continues at Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert until March 31
Pictures Courtesy of Nick Woodward-Shaw