Second bananas steal Ogunquit’s riotous ‘Nice Work’

Joey Sorge and the ensemble perform  “Nice Work  If You Can Get It.”  Photo: Gary Ng

Joey Sorge and the ensemble perform “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” Photo: Gary Ng

OGUNQUIT, ME. – Yes, I know the leads in a musical are important, but unless you have second and third bananas who can also hit the mark, your show is going nowhere.

“Nice Work If You Can Get It” had a decent run on Broadway, starring Matthew Broderick as playboy Jimmy Winter and Kelli O’Hara as bootlegger Billie Bendix, garnering 10 2012 Tony nominations, but it was Worcester native Michael McGrath and Judy Kaye copping Tonys, winning for best supporting actor and actress in a musical, respectively.

So while the leads in the Ogunquit Playhouse’s rowdy, raucous and riotous production of “Nice Work If You Can Get It” – Amanda Lea LaVergne as Billie and Joey Sorge as Jimmy Winter are perfectly fine – they are continually having scenes in the show stolen from beneath, above and behind them by the pair of Sally Struthers, as the Prohibitionist Estonia Dulworth, the Duchess of Woodford, played by Kaye on Broadway, and Beverly native James Beaman as bootlegger-turned-butler Cookie McGee, McGrath’s part on Broadway.

Struthers and Beaman bring the production to a show-stopping halt in two instances with some brilliant tag-team comedic acting, especially in the second act numbers “By Strauss” and “Looking for a Boy.”

Struthers, of course, honed her comedic talents alongside the late Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton in perhaps the the greatest TV situation comedy of all time – “All in the Family” – and is a gamer beloved by Ogunquit audiences, willing to do anything for a laugh, including, literally swinging from a chandelier.

Beaman shines as the oily bootlegger turned savvy, problem-solving butler who beams at his new-found respectability and finds – as do many others in the piece – unlikely love.

Much of the credit goes to the book by Joe DiPietro (“Memphis,” “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”), inspired by the material of Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse and based on the Gershwin musical “Oh, Kay,” written for Gertrude Lawrence. It is a screwball comedy with a lighter-than-air plot.

It is the Roaring 20’s, the height of Prohibition, but it’s pretty easy to get a drink if you’re wealthy playboy Jimmy Winter, whose main occupation when he isn’t in a speakeasy is marrying his girlfriends.

He’s about to stride down the aisle with No. 4, the contemporary dance artist Eileen Evergreen (Breighanna Minnema) – think the Maureen character in “Rent” as a straight woman – that is, if the paperwork comes through on his divorce of Wife No. 3.

He’s somehow gotten himself involved with a bootlegging ring that has stashed 400 cases of hooch in the basement of his Long Island mansion, where he has gone to marry Eileen. The couple catches the bootleggers in the mansion, assuming them to be staff sent over to help an forcing them to re-invent themselves as members of the mansion staff: Billie as a maid, Cookie as the butler, and Duke Mahoney (Aaron Fried) as a cook.

Valton Jackson has some nice comedic moments as the highly suspicious local cop Chief Berry, whose continuing efforts to blow the lid off the bootlegging gang go hilariously awry.

Steve Brady is U.S. Sen. Max Evergreen, Eileen’s father and an upright, uptight moralist, who is running for re-election and is wary of any scandal that might derail him – like, say, a daughter’s fiancee who might be a practicing polygamist.

His sister Estonia (Struthers) is waging a war against “Demon Rum,” at one point losing it hilariously.

LaVergne and Sorge are up to the dancing and singing demands of the leads, and meld nicely with not only Struthers and Beaman, but the entire ensemble. Elyse Collier has some funny moments as the statuesque but clueless blonde Jeannie Muldoon, determined to rule England with “Duke” Mahoney.

DiPietro’s book provides the stable hatrack upon which the inimitable George and Ira Gershwin tunes can be including strategically inserted best ever written, including the title tune, “Someone to Watch Over Me,” ”S Wonderful,” “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” and “Sweet and Low Down.”

The production numbers are beautiful to behold, with Martin Pakledinaz’s gorgeous costumes mating perfectly with Peggy Hickey’s high-stepping choreography, with a 10-member dance ensemble that is both athletic and attractive.

Kudos to Ogunquit for including Music Director/Conductor Charlie Reuter in the closing bows; the Gershwins’ tunes are lovingly and skillfully replicated by the orchestra.

The brave Valerie Harper performed the role of Millicent Winter, Jimmy’s mother, for the first few performances of the run before falling ill, and Brenda Vaccaro stepped into the breech with only a day or so of rehearsal, and like the trooper she is, got though it a recent performance with aplomb.

Director Larry Raben has wisely allowed both Struthers and Beaman to take their antics as far as they wanted, and encouraged the rest of the cast to join in the fun.

“Nice Work If You Can Get It” is a nice ticket if you can get it, but the show has been a consistent sellout since the run began, although the run continues through Aug. 15.

The Ogunquit Theatre production of “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” Music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Book by Joe DiPietro, inspired by material from Guy Bolton nd P.G. Wodehouse. Directed by Larry Raben. At the Ogunquit Playhouse through Aug. 15.

Sally Struthers as Estonia Dulworth and members of the ensemble. Photo: Gary Ng

Sally Struthers as Estonia Dulworth and members of the ensemble. Photo: Gary Ng