Gershwin `gold' - plus flappers, stompers, and show-stoppers

Lady, Be Good! Goodspeed Opera House revival of the George and Ira Gershwin musical at Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater. Directed by Thomas Gruenwald. Lovers of the Brothers Gershwin's songs should tap-dance right over to Kennedy Center, where a revival of their 1924 hit ``Lady, Be Good!'' is stomping up a storm.

The Goodspeed Opera House production, which has just opened at Kennedy's Eisenhower Theater, bubbles with three of their lasting hits: ``The Man I Love,'' ``Fascinatin' Rhythm,'' and the title song, ``Lady, Be Good!,'' as well as some obscure but winning numbers like ``The Half-of-It-Dearie Blues'' and a couple that should have stayed in the trunk.

But nostalgic as the George and Ira Gershwin score is, it is unfortunately subsidiary to the dancing in this brilliantly choreographed production. Even the famous torch song, ``The Man I Love,'' sounds as if it were ``The Man I Like'' in singer Kathy Morath's cool, restrained version.

The plot of this Jazz Age piece of puff pastry involves a young brother and sister, the Trevors, dispossessed from their mansion by a curmudgeonly uncle and forced to survive on the dubious kindness of their society friends. They dance their way through their troubles with such sparkling style that the audience may be reminded of that famous dance team Fred Astaire and his sister, Adele. In fact, the Astaires did originate the roles of Dick and Susie Trevor in the first ``Lady, Be Good!,'' which was also the first score that composer George Gershwin wrote with lyricist Ira Gershwin.

The real show-stopper of the musical is ``Fascinatin' Rhythm'' under Dan Siretta's exuberant choreography and musical staging. At the opening, applause was so overwhelming in mid-number that the dancers stopped dead in what looked like a freeze frame from an artsy movie. The madcap dance began with a talented ukulele player (Richard Stillman), who belted out ``Fascinatin' Rhythm'' in Al Jolson style. With his plunking ukulele he led all the partygoers in a breathless tap-dancing number that rivaled the title number from ``42nd Street.''

Unfortunately, the rest of the musical isn't up to that scene. There is a dated and often corny book by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson with lines and puns that may be historically faithful but would have had a vaudeville team pelted off the stage with ripe fruit. Example: Hobo Jack Robinson tells Susie Trevor: ``I hate to go, but my car is waiting.'' Susie: ``I didn't know hobos had cars.'' Jack: ``They do - freight cars.'' Groan.

``Lady, Be Good!'' may not have the witty book of ``My Fair Lady,'' but it does have other assets. Among them is the mysterious title number sung by a roguish lawyer named Watty Watkins, who begs Susie to disguise herself as a Mexican widow to collect an inheritance.

The roaring '20s come alive in that number and some of the others, with flappers and their guys dancing vigorous Charlestons and the Castle Walk.

They prance around in John Carver Sullivan's jazzy costumes: boop-boop-a-doop silk chemises and T-strap shoes, black tie or plus-fours with vent-back jackets. And the Eduardo Sicangco sets are, to use a '20s word, smart-looking period revivals amusingly framed, like pictures, by cartoons in the John Held Jr. style. Thomas Gruenwald's brisk direction captures the fizzy beat of the era.

There are no familiar stars in this production from the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn., which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year as the only theater in America dedicated to the development, preservation, and heritage of the American musical. But an enthusiastic cast prances through these vintage numbers, with particularly fine performances by the effervescent Nikki Sahagen as Susie Trevor, Steve Watkins as her brother Dick, Iris Revson as the spoiled heiress Daisy Parke, Russell Leib as her lawyer, and Richard Stillman as the ukulele strummer.

Some of the numbers in this authentic revival and all the original orchestrations were found by the Goodspeed group when an old Warner Bros. storehouse was opened last year in Secaucus, N.J., and vintage Gershwin material was unearthed.

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