There are finales, and then there are finales. "I've Got Rhythm," the eight-minute-long Act 1 finale of Crazy for You, is as good as a finale gets. When this exuberant production number exploded on Broadway in 1994, it marked the official arrival of choreographer Susan Stroman as a force to be reckoned with.
This week's Muny mounting of Crazy for You re-creates that original Stroman choreography, and it is exhilarating to behold. Under the watchful eye of surrogate Deanna L. Dys, the Muny dancing chorus rises to the taxing challenge of tap dancing with ropes and pick axes. A viewer has the right to wonder if he's attending a musical or a three-ring circus; at times there's just that much occurring onstage.
Crazy for You was crafted to exploit America's perennial love affair with George and Ira Gershwin. Its genesis is their 1930 Broadway musical Girl Crazy (which made a star of Ethel Merman), with a nod to the 1943 Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movie version. One wishes that the show's author might have nodded a little longer, because the new book -- a dumb "eastern dude meets western gal" story -- improves not a whit on the movie script, which wasn't such great shakes to begin with. The new book had one essential function, which was to string a laundry line from which to hang eighteen Gershwin songs. Yet the new plot is negligible, the jokes are mostly lame and the transitions into the songs are often clumsy.
And you know what? It doesn't matter a bit, because the instant the principals ease into such standards as "Embraceable You" and "Someone to Watch Over Me," Crazy for You edges about as close to musical-theater heaven as you could hope to get.
We're not talking pale imitation here. To be undiplomatically blunt, both leads are improvements over their Broadway counterparts. As the leading-man anchor of Crazy for You, Noah Racey is a revelation. He's half Mikhail Baryshnikov, half Jerry Lewis. His nimble dancing conveys graceful humor, and his physical comedy is clean and precise. Racey is ideally matched by Paige Price, who plays a mean pair of spoons, dances like a demure gazelle and possesses a chin line so firm and smooth you could probably skateboard down it. When Racey and Price swirl across the Muny stage in "Shall We Dance?" they've left Mickey and Judy far behind. Dance assumes a hushed eloquence as they enter the elegant, dream-harbored realm of Fred and Ginger. Individually, Racey and Price are each sensational; together, they are a glory to behold.
The third key role, a flamboyant Florenz Ziegfeld-type producer, is portrayed by Bruce Adler, who, after having played the role on Broadway, has learned how to wring a few laughs out of this excruciatingly unfunny book. For that he deserves heartfelt thanks.
Act 1 ends on such a high, it's no surprise that Act 2 has trouble getting started. Once again, the music rides to the rescue. By the time "Stiff Upper Lip," "They Can't Take That Away from Me" and "But Not for Me" are sung back-to-back, the show is soaring once again. In time, the savvy viewer learns to tune out the book and to use the time between songs to ponder the genius responsible for this cavalcade of irrepressible melodies.
When George Gershwin died 66 years ago this month at age 38, his obituary in the New York Times prophetically stated, "Upon one thing all are agreed -- his music will not soon be forgotten." This week in Forest Park, the triad of Stroman, Racey and Price is providing new musical memories that are sure to be long remembered.