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Theater review: Funny, Charming ‘Nutty Professor’ Entertains

The Nutty Professor 6The Nutty Professor entertains in grand American musical comedy style. Broadway should want it – they’d be truly nutty to pass on this funny, charming show.

Fans of the Jekyll-and-Hyde update that Jerry Lewis and William Richmond wrote for the beloved 1963 movie won’t be disappointed by this live version: The spine of the film, to borrow from a recent comment by show director Lewis, is indeed the spine of the musical. Lewis’ legendary comic vision still reigns supreme.

But with sterling theatrical contributions – a lovely score by Marvin Hamlisch, witty book and lyrics by Rupert Holmes, exciting choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter, fantastic sets by David Gallo, the colorful costume creations of Ann Hould-Ward, the period-perfect hair and wigs of Tom Watson, the sturdy sound designs of John Shivers and David Patridge and the whimsical lighting of David Weiner – this is definitely a show for the stage.

The Nutty Professor 10It’s the early 1960s at a Middle America bastion of higher learning known as Korwin University. Professor Julius Kelp (Michael Andrew) has a warmer relationship with the school lab Bunsen burners than with other human beings. He becomes committed to changing himself for the better after meeting progressive and idealistic transfer student Stella Purdy (Marissa McGowan). His radical solution for a personal upgrade works but not as he or anyone could have predicted. One thing’s for sure – the scene at the Purple Pit nightclub is going to swing like never before.

I saw the first preview performance last week before attending Tuesday’s official opening. There were tweaks to the production between those two performances but understandably no major changes as The Nutty Professor has no large structural flaws or narrative-halting lulls to fix.

The Nutty Professor 5Among the score and scene highlights: Purdy’s endearing anthem “While I Still Have the Time;” the marching band pulse of “Dance to My Own Drummer;” the wistful look at chemical attraction formulated in “Stella;” Buddy Love’s sizzling intro “(Hey is it Me or) Is it Hot in Here;” the ever-changing fun of “I’m Trouble;” and a rousing show-stopper called “Step Out of Your Shell” (more about that later).

Those playing the music deserve every laurel sent their way. Conductor Stephen Kummer (who also plays keyboards) leads some familiar local names in an orchestra that includes Paul Carrol Binkley, Barry Green, Ron Sorbo, Danny Young, Pat Coil, Jeff Bailey, Steve Patrick, Jimmy Bowland, Matt Davich, Robby Shankle, Jennifer Kummer and Doug Moffat as well as Bobby Brennan, Andrew’s bassist for 17 years. And Larry Hochman’s tight orchestrations also deserve praise, as does the work of music supervisor/vocal arranger Todd Ellison.

(If this review reads more like a book report with all the names I’ve mentioned please forgive me; there are so many fine details in the work of those connected onstage and off to The Nutty Professor that I could write thousands of words and still not cite all I’d like to mention. It therefore feels right to list the names of many involved with this production.)

The Nutty Professor 2Are there moments that could be jettisoned without damaging the show? As with other new theater works there are components that aren’t essential. To avoid misunderstanding, I don’t think anything in The Nutty Professor as now presented is bad; theirs is an embarrassment of riches.

What could be possibly be cut? It would still work to have less of the Act I sequence where Kelp first meets with former-tailor-to-the-stars Murray (Mark Jacoby) and then proceeds to the gym run by Murray’s Jack-LaLanne-meets-Richard Simmons brother Maury (also Jacoby). In that sequence there are the clever first and second parts of the “Makes for a Change” number (the third comes back at Kelp’s lab) that allow the multi-faceted talents of Jacoby to shine; a great turnaround set piece by Gallo for Murray’s and Maury’s establishments; one of several terrific dances staged by Hunter; and the recreation of a memorable sight gag from the film.

All of that sequence is well-designed and sharply executed, but it isn’t necessary to tell the story – in this fantasy-tinged tale we don’t need to concern ourselves with how Love (Andrew) gets his suits or whether Kelp attempts self-improvement with something other than the chemical solution he’ll inevitably use. And trimming would allow us to reach the mesmerizing moment when Kelp first transforms into Love sooner and even provide more time to expand that moment’s possibilities.

The Nutty Professor 3In Act II, there’s a good gospel-flavored choral piece called “Everything You’ve Ever Learned is Wrong” which is also fine but not essential. Sure, the break-up of Love and Purdy raises the stakes, but that could be accomplished with some more Holmes dialogue before the show moves to the boffo “Step Out of Your Shell” number that follows it.

But those are minor points, and to repeat, there’s nothing wrong with the scenes I’ve cited; possibly the only thing that might play better elsewhere was a “To Hell with Pat Boone!” line in Act II’s “Buddy’s Place” opening that met with silence Tuesday. That’s not surprising since the crooner/actor grew up in Nashville.

The Nutty Professor 1What about a major point like the work of the show’s leading man? Andrew lives up to all the praise Lewis and others have heaped on him. The multi-gifted performer gives us characterizations that are appropriately guided by the time-honored story and his director, but they’re not imitations of Lewis in the film: Andrew creates his own glittering path.

Andrew’s nerdy Kelp is a kind man that sadly doesn’t realize he should love and accept himself as he already is; Love is cocky and crass, but he’s also cool and (eventually) even considerate. The specific shades of those behaviors are numerous; presenting them all while singing with a flexible and powerful voice is a feat Andrew pulls off with grace and panache.

McGowan is tremendous as Stella Purdy, grabbing our hearts with her beautiful rendition of “While I Still Have the Time” early in Act I and never letting go. The role of Stella is enlarged in the musical as compared to the film, and McGowan’s progressive-minded, sunny spin on Purdy is quite good; her ability to convey Purdy’s affections for Kelp/Love is convincing too. And McGowan’s crystal-clear voice produces (among other vocal delights) one of the best Broadway belts one will ever hear. She’s simply pitch-perfect as this show’s female lead.

The Nutty Professor 8Jacoby is like a veteran utility player in baseball; stick him in anywhere and his talent and experience will get the needed results. He’s a hoot as the smug dean Dr. Warfield and three other characters (the aforementioned Murray and Maury as well as Mikey the Bartender.) Jamie Ross as college benefactor Harrington Winslow and Ryan Worsing as his impatient-for-inheritance son Chad turn in funny work as well.

The Nutty Professor 7Klea Blackhurst is a great stage successor to the film portrayal of Miss Lemon by the highly accomplished Kathleen Freeman. (Freeman, who appeared in several Lewis films as well as a multitude of other projects on the big and small screens, was a top-flight theater performer too; she appeared at TPAC as Miss Hannigan in a 1980s national tour of Annie I fondly recall, and she died in 2001 at age 82 just five days after leaving The Full Monty Broadway production for health reasons).

Yes, Blackhurst has looks that somewhat resemble Freeman, and her speaking voice onstage is similar too. It’s her fine timing, actions and reactions that ultimately lead me to connect the two, though. Blackhurst also has a great set of pipes, and the combination of her singing and acting talents (as well as good movement) are on great display in “Step Out of Your Shell,” which received lengthy and loud applause at both performances I attended. That number is one of The Nutty Professor’s highlights for more than one reason – music, lyrics and choreography certainly play their parts – but the incredible Blackhurst puts it over the top.

The entire ensemble is excellent – Stuart Howard and Paul Hardt deserve kudos for their casting. I’m going to single out one to mention, though, because she’s quite a story in her own right – recent Belmont University graduate Meghan Glogower. She’s quickly gone from turning the tassel to turning steps in a first-class professional show, and given her acting, singing and dancing abilities it’s easy to figure out why. The show’s creators certainly agree, since she’s got plenty of business onstage as Kimberly the cheerleader and Dot, who ends up as the girlfriend of football captain Norm Broadkowski (Ronnie Nelson). It’s exciting to watch such a talented young performer at the beginning of a very promising acting career.

The Nutty Professor 4The Nutty Professor is a show that fondly embraces a Golden-Age-of-American-Musicals ethos; the entertaining journey we take with Julius Kelp and Stella Purdy is like the optimistic theatrical trip we once took with such characters as J. Pierrepont Finch and Rosemary Pilkington from How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. I’ll end with a salute to Executive Producer Ned McLeod, Producer Mac Pirkle and TPAC President and CEO Kathleen O’Brien: Thanks for working to insure that Nashville debuted an entertaining musical that should have long legs.

The world premiere of The Nutty Professor continues through Aug. 19 in Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Polk Theater (500 Deaderick St.). For tickets and more information on the show’s pre-Broadway run visit www.nuttyprofessormusical.com.

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*Photos by Rick Malkin courtesy Rick Malkin Photography and TPAC.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).

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  1. [...] Donnell (Arts Nash): The Nutty Professor entertains in grand American musical comedy style. Broadway should want it [...]

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