Nick & Nora
Arthur Laurents, Book; Charles Strouse, Music; Richard Maltby, Jr., Lyrics
42nd Street Moon prides itself in making “great musicals sing again by finding (and often painstakingly restoring) ‘lost’ classics” -- or in the case of Nick and Nora, forgotten flops. Based on Dashiell Hammett’s enormously successful 1934 Thin Man novel turned into movie, radio, and television hits, Nick and Nora was reconceived into a musical in 1991 by the Laurents et al team and looked initially to have all the elements for a sure Broadway success. But that was not to be; and after the longest preview period (71) of any New York show until the recent 15-week-previewed Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, the show only lasted nine performances with no further curtain-raisings until this 2015 resurrection at 42nd Street.
The core story of Nick and Nora follows a formula known and expected by all murder mystery lovers. Lorraine Bixby, a rather ditsy and jolly bookkeeper of a movie production company, is murdered by one of a host of possible suspects, all of whom we discover in Act One have personal motives for knocking her off. One of the to-be suspects, a Hollywood starlet Tracy Gardner, is greatly annoyed that the musical that will surely win her a much-coveted Best Actress Oscar will now not happen because the famed director-to-be (Max Bernheim) has been arrested for the murder. She seeks the help of her Fairmont College pal Nora Charles, who just happens to be married to the great, murder-solving sleuth, Nick Charles, in order to prove Max is innocent and to find the real killer. (It is this married couple, Nick and Nora, who in the original 1934 film become iconic figures by the incomparable, sleekly beautiful William Powell and Myrna Loya.) The mystery unraveling progresses intermingled with song, dance, stock characters of the ‘30s galore, and lots of dead-end and funny attempts to nail the true murder. And of course the standard, Agatha Christie (and Angela Lansbury) moment arrives when all suspects are gathered together to allow the real murderer to emerge by a wonderfully planned ploy orchestrated by our Private Eye Duo.
Where this musical version of the famed Nick and Nora shines is when it sticks to the standard whodunit rhythm we are expecting from a murder mystery. The suspects are very funny in their stereotyped ways, particularly when they all come together in song and dance for some wonderfully hilarious numbers. In “Detectiveland,” each one’s motives are detailed before us with the sleuths scurrying around, well on their trails. “Busy Night at Lorraine’s” reenacts how the victim’s apartment was like Grand Central Station the night of the murder with each suspect almost bumping into all the others in the comings and goings of that fateful evening – all outfited in what has been established as the dress of the perpetrator (trench coats with velvet collar and a hat). At these moments, the musical totally entertains. While not all the other solos, duets, and smaller ensembles always work as well in either music or lyrics, there are some outstandingly funny moments such as Allison Rich as Tracy singing “Everybody Wants to Do a Musical” and Megan Stetson as a Googie Gomez-like character (Rita Moreno in The Ritz) shaking her booty with her cha-cha boys (Juan and another Juan, played by Davern Wright and Justin Gillman). (I did find myself squirming nervously in this latter trio’s portrayal of very exaggerated, cartoonish Latin characters and in Reuben Uy’s of a Japanese Yukido. While the actors are in keeping with 1930s stereotypes, watching these types of treatments in 2015 feels a bit uncomfortable.)
Things do not work as well in the amount of time and attention paid to the starring detective pair, Nick and Nora. Much of the book and some of the songs are dedicated to their marital bantering and quips as each coyly tries to one-up the other. There are moments when we see strains in the relationship and are even led down a false alley to believe there might be trouble in paradise. While Ryan Drummond and Brittany Danielle are very convincing in these roles, their relationship adds time and slows the pace too much in this 2-hour, 45-minute journey. Between the time allotted for them to jockey back and forth in song and words and the time to meet all the many suspects, Act One particularly bogs down and becomes a bit wearisome. By Act Two, the pace and energy really picks up as the unraveling and possible scenario reenactments of the mystery take full stage with false clues further emerging of who the killer might really be.
As Lorraine, Nicole Frydman is a particular joy to watch. She replays her death over and over again with aplomb (including falling repeatedly into a dead heap) and causes chuckles every time she wanders on stage to help the telling of everyone’s versions of what happened, when. All the other cast members do a good-to-great job in playing the expected stock characters necessary for a good, old-fashioned murder. Their un-miked voices ring out in varying degrees of success in the musical numbers, with Allison Rich standing out among the cast in her strong renderings whenever the actress Tracy steps forward to sing. The soft, sweet voice of Brittany Danielle (Nora) unfortunately often does not match the stronger-voiced Ryan Drummond (Nick) in their duets, and I found her lyrics often difficult to understand. A mike would have solved that issue but would run against 42nd Street Moon’s desire to provide the modern audience the rare chance to hear a musical truly live -- and not through big speakers.
There are many clues within this production of why the original musical did not last long and has not been produced since. That said, kudos and applause must be given our treasured 42nd Street Moon for providing us a chance to witness this often-funny, yes-too-long revival of a truly lost musical.
Rating: 3 E’s