Broadway’s latest drag musical is lukewarm

Gentlemen prefer… the movie.

The wobbly quality of the new Broadway musical “Some Like It Hot,” which opened Sunday night at the Shubert Theater, is made all the more evident by the undoubted grandeur of its source material.

theater review

Duration 2h30, with an intermission. At the Shubert Theater, 225 W 44th Street.

The 1959 film Marilyn Monroe is one of the best comedies of all time. And so, as only Broadway can do, it produced a mostly charmless song-and-dance version of a beloved title.

However, even if you enter totally cold – “Who is Jack Lemmon?” God forbid – the show still disappoints as a standalone play.

Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s repetitive songs gnaw at the ears, there aren’t enough laughs in Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin’s book and the revised ending, in which a character questions her gender identity, doesn’t seem neither honest nor natural, but as if it has been exhaustively grouped together to avoid negative reactions from Twitter. (And, after the “Tootsie” smash in 2018, it probably was.)

“Some Like It Hot” amounts to another man-in-a-robe musical that isn’t quite as melodic, moving, or hilarious as “La Cage aux Folles.” When musicians Joe (Christian Borle) and Jerry (J. Harrison Ghee) first don dresses and wigs to dress up while on the run, there’s a collective exasperation of “Are you still?”

Daphne and Josephine join Sweet Sue's (Natasha Yvette Williams) company Syncopators.
Daphne and Josephine join Sweet Sue’s (NaTasha Yvette Williams) company Syncopators.
Marc J.Franklin

The two penniless bums reunite in women’s gear after witnessing organized crime in Chicago in the 1930s. Fearing for their lives, they dress up, board the train for California, and join a gang entirely touring girl called Sweet Sue’s Society Syncopators. Joe and Jerry are no more – now they are Josephine and Daphne. And their ultimate goal is to cross the border into Mexico to avoid being offended.

As Josephine, Borle taps on glasses and uses a Midwestern brogue that also evokes Mira Sorvino in “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.” A running gag that Josephine looks old – offensive to Joe – is funny. But the smiling performance is too ironic to be believable.

Ghee, full of charisma, is doing better than Daphne. The actor has a storyline that’s more emotional than tumultuous, and their big number “You Could’ve Knocked Me Over With a Feather” is expressive and exciting, even though it sounds a lot like Shaiman and Wittman’s “Big, Blonde and Beautiful.” “Hairspray.”

Adrianna Hicks plays the candy cane in
Adrianna Hicks plays Sugar Cane in “Some Like It Hot.”
Marc J.Franklin

On the train, the duo meet Sugar Cane (Adrianna Hicks), lead singer of the Syncopators, and womanizer Joe struggles to calm his libido as he’s being hit on. While playing Sugar, Hicks has a powerful voice, but Monroe’s I don’t know what Is missed. We realize that much of the character was Monroe’s iconic personality – and without her, there’s not much left except the script not knowing what to do with Sugar’s drinking problem.

During the first act, in particular, the Shaiman and Wittman-derived jazz score hammers you with generic character and volume. Each song sounds like a shouted version of “Honey Bun” from “South Pacific”. Tune in titles like “Vamp!” and “Zee Bap” are screaming in our faces like unhinged lunatics on Eighth Avenue, and the duo behind “Hairspray” have seemingly lost the ability to find jokes and develop character with their music.

They end the first half with their song “Let’s Be Bad” from “Smash” on TV which, let’s not forget, was a huge flop for NBC.

Daphne (J. Harrison Ghee) meets Osgood (Kevin Del Aguila) in San Diego.
Daphne meets Osgood (Kevin Del Aguila, center) in San Diego.
Marc J.Franklin

In Act 2, the group arrives at a large hotel in California. And, come to think of it, “Some Like It Hot” would benefit from a director-choreographer like “Grand Hotel’s” Tommy Tune, who knows how to get the most out of a bar or bellhop in a creative way. Director Casey Nicholaw doesn’t, and as a result tap-dances without motivation wherever he can. At first the tap is dazzling, but the shimmer fades into monotony. Scott Pask’s Metallic Vintage Set is Art Meh-co.

West Coast antics are meant to be wacky. Daphne ends up flirting with wealthy Osgood (Kevin Del Aguila), and Jerry adopts a third persona as a German film producer to woo Sugar. Nicholaw tackles a long, crazy “Benny Hill” chase sequence towards the end with gangsters, cops and the band that’s logistically impressive but barely hysterical. Act 2, for all its plot complications, is eerily calm.

Christian Borle as Josephine, left, and J. Harrison Ghee as Daphne with the cast of
Christian Borle as Josephine (left) and J. Harrison Ghee as Daphne with the cast of “Some Like It Hot.”
Matthew Murphy

In fact, the funniest people on the show are NaTashha Yvette Williams as Sweet Sue and Angie Schworer as the manager of the Society Syncopators. Kudos to them, but their prodigious talent and knack for a punchline underscores the main cast’s lack of material.

I’ve heard “Some Like It Hot” often described as an “old school musical”. And, yes, it feels really old. But the shows these folks are referring to, and which this musical aspires to be — “Guys and Dolls,” “The Music Man,” “Anything Goes” — sparked innovation in their time (and, you know, had strong scores and books).

Unlike “Some”, they were hot.

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