By Bill Beard
Some of you may not remember, unless you watch late-night movie re-runs, the wonderful old film that made history in 1959, Some Like It Hot. It starred Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as Joe and Jerry, two out-of-work musicians in Prohibition-era Chicago, and with Marilyn Monroe as the sexy singer-ukulele-playing Sugar Kane, soloist with Sweet Sue’s “Society Syncopaters,” an all-girl band, ready to move from Chicago to a new gig at a posh resort in Miami.
When Joe and Jerry accidentally witness a Valentine’s Day murder scene and become the target for Mob “witness disposal” retaliation, the boys, desperate to get out of town, disguise themselves as girls and grab last-minute jobs as Sweet Sue’s new saxophone and bull fiddle players, and they’re off to Miami.
Sugar, the Musical, now playing at the Drury Lane, Oak Brook, is the 1972 stage musical adaptation of that wonderful movie. Actually, it’s more than that. It is what Drury Lane’s award-winning Director-Choreographer Jim Corti refers to as a “re-imagining” of the show. I reviewed Mr. Corti’s production of Sweet Charity in March 2008, with the magnificent Summer Smart in the title role. It was a superb show, and went on to win Corti the Jeff Award as Best Director that year. He brings the same brilliance to his staging of Sugar, and more. He has judiciously pruned and honed script and score and added real pace, sparkling energy and a sense of style. He has produced a gleeful hit.
His directorial concept sets the production in a film studio, where we are exposed to all of the technical “backstage” elements involved therein, like microphones, imaginary cameras; the lowering of flown scenery and lights; and huge spotlights being wheeled around the stage by a crew of stagehands in coveralls; as well as the actors’ entrances and exits and off-stage activity. It’s all quite fascinating, whether really helpful.
Frankly, by the middle of Act II, it seemed a bit much, and I began to wonder whether the effect added enough to this already busy, fun-filled comedy to make it worth it.
At times, the peripheral activity almost seemed to distract from the fantastic scenery by the ever-prolific Brian Sidney Bembridge and gorgeous costumes by Melissa Torchia. But the extra dimension did add to what can only be called a simple, two-dimensional plot.
The music, which is clever, upbeat and fun, is by Jule Styne, who also wrote Funny Girl and Gypsy; but although none of the songs from Sugar ended up famous, they all work beautifully in developing the characters and the plot situations, e.g., “Doin’ It For Sugar,” “We Could Be Close” and the “Shell Oil” song.
Director Corti has found an excellent ensemble. The two male leads are perfectly cast; one, the confident, good-looking male on the prowl; the other, a somewhat shy, uncertain, easily intimidated would-be lover.
As Joe/“Josephine,” matinee-idol handsome Rod Thomas makes a passably lovely, tall, slender and very “leggy” lady, passing fair, but not a real beauty. On the other hand, Alan Schmuckler, the actor, is himself a cute little guy, personally endearing and engaging; and as Jerry/“Daphne”…well, he is still endearing, and yes! He is still cute! Sweet, lovable and downright “cute”! I much prefer his Daphne to the movie’s Jack Lemmon; and as good as Robert Morse was on Broadway, Mr. Schmuckler is even more adorable.
The lovely Jennifer Knox, as the sexy bombshell singer Sugar Kane, is a delightful surprise. Forsaking any similarity to the beautifully ditzy dumb blond as perfected by Marilyn Monroe in the film, Ms. Knox gives us a multi-dimensional, sweetly-naïve and charmingly-believable character, who not only sings well, but also dances superbly.
Strong performances by Tammy Mader as bandleader Sweet Sue, and Stef Tovar as her Road Manager, Bienstock, plus an excellent ensemble, add to the already splendid evening. Only the character of Osgood Fielding Jr., the dirty old millionaire with the yacht, seems out of sync here. No one should expect Joe D. Lauck to bring a Joe E. Brown imitation to the stage; Brown was a one-of-a-kind clown. But the character should be fun, and funny; and styled at least a little bit of a caricature. This Osgood was too credible, authentic, too straightforward; right off a real yacht.
Jim Corti has given Oak Brook another frothy summer pastiche. Don’t miss it! Sugar plays through Aug. 1. Call (630) 530-0111 or visit www.drurylaneoakbrook.com today.
From the June 30-July 6, 2010 issue