When Crazy for You breezed through town three years ago on its way to Broadway, it was bubbly as all get out—an effervescent “new” ’30s musical that made you wonder why the tuneful, joke-driven shows to which it paid homage had ever gone out of style. The touring version currently ensconced at the KenCen Opera House is bright and bouncy, its Gershwin score as winning as ever, and its romantic leads at least twice as engaging as their predecessors. This time though, it’s easy to see why plot musicals took over from their vaudeville-inspired brethren in the ’40s. Put simply, anyone can tell a story, but it takes a comedian to tell a joke.

Crazy for You is the sort of show that only pays attention to plot when it absolutely has to. The story of a milquetoast banker who wins the girl of his dreams by pretending he’s an…oh, never mind, it wouldn’t make sense even if I went on for paragraphs. Suffice it to say that 19 lighter-than-helium tunes by George and Ira Gershwin (lifted from Girl Crazy and a half-dozen other musicals) have been separated in Ken Ludwig’s deliberately imbecilic book by jests built around personalities and specialty acts. Ludwig includes comic bits for a close-harmony trio, a Margaret Dumont-ish dowager, several aging vaudevillians, a tough-as-nails vamp, and a kick-line of chorus girls in pink.

Each specialty routine was tailor-made for the original cast members—sometimes in very obvious ways. For instance, in its pre-Broadway incarnation, the supporting cast included a trio known offstage as the Manhattan Rhythm Kings, one of whom (Brian M. Nalepka) often played bass on Monday nights with Woody Allen at Michael’s Pub. For no better reason than that, a Gershwin ditty called “Slap That Bass” (from the 1937 Astaire/Rogers movie Shall We Dance) was incorporated into the first act and turned into a show-stopping production number. Tom Sardinia, the actor who has inherited Nalepka’s role at the Opera House, understandably can’t slap his bass with quite the same authority, so the number no longer stops the show. Ditto the “Naughty Baby” vamp in which a frosty society dame who’s used to having her way scissors a passing male with the shapeliest legs this side of a Vargas drawing. As danced three years ago by the positively Amazonian Michele Pawk, the moment was all about sexual domination. In Riette Burdick’s performance at the Opera House, it’s just a flashy, athletic dance routine.

The numbers that work as staging jokes rather than as personality routines tend to fare better, at least partly because Ludwig has seen to it that context crosses up audience expectations on many of the most familiar ditties. Nestled in his new plot line, for instance, Girl Crazy‘s love-struck ballad “Embraceable You” is transformed into a sweetly comic dance number about a woman who shrinks from hugs. Similarly, “Bidin’ My Time” turns into an anthem about the laziest town in Nevada. Other standards—including “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “I Got Rhythm,” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”—are allowed to work their wiles as they always have. And songs culled from a recently rediscovered New Jersey warehouse filled with unpublished Gershwiniana have also been shoehorned in to good effect. (This remains true even when their lyrics are rendered all-but-incomprehensible by inept miking, as they are in “What Causes That”—from the obscure 1928 Broadway flop Treasure Girl—performed here as a mirror routine by two identically attired drunks.)

Director Mike Ockrent and set designer Robin Wagner have found nifty ways to duplicate cinematic zooms and panning shots in the staging, so that when the characters head for Deadrock, Nev., the town can seem to be approaching from a distance. And Ockrent and Wagner’s staging tricks have mostly survived the inevitable paring-down process that accompanies taking a Broadway show on tour. (Alas, one of their cleverest notions—a chair-piling, red-flag-waving number that pokes visual fun at Crazy for You‘s 1992 Broadway competitors—including Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and such then-current hits as Grand Hotel and 42nd Street—practically requires footnotes a mere three years later. But that’s not a production issue.)

The one area in which this production tops the original is the casting of the romantic leads. For anyone who lamented that Harry Groener (who created the part of Bobby Child) seemed every bit as nebbishy as the nondescript banker he was playing, Kirby Ward’s sublimely relaxed comic turn will be a revelation. The guy’s a terrific dancer, and projects personality through every pore. And Beverly Ward’s Polly (offstage, the two are husband and wife) is a perfect foil for him: feisty, spunky, and in lovely voice even when the sound system has her struggling to be heard over the pit band’s woodwinds. Whenever choreographer Susan Stroman treats them as a latter-day Fred and Ginger, the show soars in precisely the ways it was always meant to.

As the lights come up on Steve Tesich’s On the Open Road, a bound-and-gagged man with a noose around his neck is poised precariously atop an oil drum. His name is Angel, and he has been left (and apparently forgotten) by a lynch mob that went in search of kerosene with which to set him afire. Why they chose him, he doesn’t know, but his presumption is that they thought he was on the “other” side of his unnamed country’s civil war. A man of no convictions and not many thoughts, Angel (Timmy Ray James) is unlikely to have been on any side (there appear to be several) but that doesn’t much matter. What he needs at this moment is a savior.

When Al (Hugh Nees) comes along, giving the oil drum a playful kick and offering a “business proposition” that amounts to indentured servitude, Angel appears to have found salvation of a sort. But he soon realizes that it comes with strings attached. Al, who has been dragging a cart filled with stolen artwork through the devastated streets, is a man of ideas who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and, Angel being the quintessential fool, they’re not well matched. Moreover, Angel is emotionally needy, while Al will do anything to avoid entanglements. After being together three minutes, they’re at each other’s throats—civil war on an intimate scale—and mutually dependent.

The dramatic landscape they traverse is symbolic—Christ’s second coming figures in the plot—yet recognizably down to earth. A program note suggests the author had post-Communist Eastern Europe in mind, but the show might as easily serve as a metaphor for the divisions in U.S. cities. That’s not meant entirely as praise. Tesich, a Yugoslavian-born playwright who is best known for his screenplays (Breaking Away and The World According to Garp, among others), has always been adept at crafting dialogue that’s rooted in character. Here, however, it’s his characters who aren’t rooted. Their speeches sound like Ionesco by way of David Mamet. And though they’re talking about such weighty matters as life, death, and spirituality, their epigrammatic observations (“Crimes against humanity are no different from acts committed in the name of humanity”) don’t hold up very well when given a little time to percolate.

Fortunately for Actors’ Theater of Washington’s well-acted, impres sive-on-a-shoestring production, director Michael Russotto keeps things brisk and comic enough that for most patrons, chuckles at the phrasing will tend to outweigh cavils about the sentiments being expressed. As tight-lipped Al, a pragmatist who claims to be “down to his last scruple,” Nees is ever crisply in control, while James makes Angel’s dithering unaccountably appealing. They’re backed by economical performances by Ben Morgan’s cello-playing black Jesus, Jeffrey Keenan’s opportunistic cleric, and a convincingly battered Erica Smith as a hysterical child. Technical effects—especially Martha Mountain’s shadowy lighting and Ron Ursano’s moody, apocalyptic score—contribute darkness and intimacy to this young company’s most accomplished production to date.

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