By: David Sheward
February 2, 2023: The new musical version of Some Like It Hot, based on Billy Wilder’s 1959 comic film classic about two musicians disguised in drag, is a delightfully daffy romp, so silly and fun-making that its sometimes heavy-handed political messaging doesn’t get in the way of a Broadway good time. Set in during the depths of the Depression in 1933, this Hot follows the basic outline of Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s original screenplay but makes more than a few significant detours into “woke” territory. New book-writers Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin address issues of race, sexism, and gender identity while juggling farcical elements and slapstick. Quite a balancing act, but director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw manages to keep all these balls in the air, never dropping one.
The dizzy storyline still features fast-talking saxophonist Joe and practical bass player Jerry switching sexes after witnessing a mob rub-out. They join up a traveling all-female band to avoid getting rubbed out themselves. Joe falls for the band’s singer, Sugar Kane (memorably immortalized by Marilyn Monroe on screen) while Jerry takes up with an eccentric millionaire. The possibilites of transgenderism or homosexuality are quickly dismissed in the Wilder edition as the gangsters show up at the hotel where Joe and Jerry, dolled up as Josephine and Daphne, are playing with the action culminating in a farcical finale.
The original and the 1974 Broadway musical version called Sugar, focused on men-in-dresses, double-entendre humor. But here the characters are seen through a 2023 lens. The casting of African-American actors as Jerry, Sugar and Sweet Sue is not color blind with specific references to their race made in the songs and dialogue. Osgood the millionaire is given an Hispanic background which he keeps hidden, tying in with Jerry/Daphne’s secret and cementing their relationship. (“The world reacts to what it sees,” Osgood tells Daphne after they have danced the night away, “and in my experience the world doesn’t have very good eyesight.”) And in this version, Jerry discovers he is Daphne, or a least a part of him is, and he comes out as such in “You Could Have Knocked Me Over with a Feather,” a glorious solo declaration not unlike Albin’s “I Am What I Am” from La Cage Aux Folles.
At times the political considerations just don’t work. Sexist and racist oppression are unbelievably dissolved by fancy scat singing as Sweet Sue and her ladies of the band foil white male bigots with a few bars of nonsense syllables to distract from well-placed knees to a few groins. Interracial and same-sex romances are casually accepted and even celebrated. But this is a musical after all, so such anachronistic developments can be taken with a grain or two of salt.
Fortunately, these contemporary additions do not distract for the sheer fizziness of the witty songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Nicholaw’s fast-paced, seamless direction and choreography and the just-light-enough performances of a crackerjack cast. Note: the dancing is top notch, perhaps the best on Broadway right now, particularly the crazed climactic chase with the entire cast madly slamming doors, switching costumes and tapping their toes off.
Christian Borle has bukets of charisma in the Tony Curtis role of Joe, managing to charm us despite the character’s reckless narcissism which eventually gives way to his better nature. His Josephine is bizarre comic invention, combining Midwestern schoolmarm with no-nonsense tough dame. J. Harrison Ghee, who identifies as non-binary, takes Jerry and Daphne to another level. Rather than play the gender switch for bawdy humor as Jack Lemmon did in the film, Ghee delivers a rounded character who makes the astonishing discovery of sexual duality and comfort in his new female identity. Adrianna Hicks wisely eschews any hint of Monroe’s iconic combination of bubbly sweetness and just-beneath-the-surface carnality. Her Sugar displays her wisdom, confidence and magnetism with no little-girl cover-up. NaTasha Yvette Williams takes full advantage of the expanded role of Sweet Sue, delighting in being her own boss and establishing the hot jazzy milieu with the grand opening number, “What Are You Thirsty For?” As the pixilated Osgood, Kevin Del Aguila delights with unique, loose-limbed dancing and a wacky sweetness. Angie Schworer, Mark Lotito, and Adam Heller get moments to shine in supporting roles.
Scott Pask’s Art Deco-inspired sets, Gregg Barnes’ versatile, gender-fluid costumes, and Natasha Katz’s warm lighting create the perfect atmosphere for this joyfully ridiculous show. Despite its occasional lapses into preachiness, it’s a really Hot time.
Some Like It Hot Opened Dec. 11, 2022 for an open run. Shubert Theater, 225 W. 44th St., NYC. Running time: two hours and 30 mins. including intermission. www.telecharge.com. Photography: Marc J. Franklin