Gentlemen prefer … the movie.
The wobbly quality of the new Broadway musical “Some Like It Hot,” which opened Sunday night at the Shubert Theatre, is made much more obvious by the indisputable greatness of its source material.
Two hour and 30 minutes, with one intermission. At the Shubert Theatre, 225 W 44th Street.
The 1959 Marilyn Monroe film is one of the best comedies of all time. And, so, as only Broadway knows how to do, it has churned out a mostly charmless song-and-dance version of a beloved title.
However, even if you go in totally cold — “Who’s Jack Lemmon?” God forbid — the show still disappoints as a stand-alone piece of theater.
The repetitive songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman gnaw on the ears, there aren’t enough big laughs in Matthew Lopez and Amber Ruffin’s book and the revised ending, in which a character questions their gender identity, feels neither honest nor natural, but as if it’s been exhaustively focus-grouped to avoid Twitter backlash. (And, after the “Tootsie” fracas back in 2018, it probably was.)
“Some Like It Hot” amounts to yet another man-in-a-dress musical that’s not as tuneful, moving or hilarious as “La Cage aux Folles.” When musicians Joe (Christian Borle) and Jerry (J. Harrison Ghee) first don frocks and wigs to disguise themselves while on the run, there is a collective exasperation of “You again?”
The two penniless bums wind up in women’s attire after they witness an organized crime hit in Chicago during the 1930s. Fearing for their lives, they get all dolled up, hop aboard the train to California and join a touring all-female band called Sweet Sue’s Society Syncopators. Joe and Jerry are no more — now they’re Josephine and Daphne. And their ultimate goal is to cross the border to Mexico to avoid being offed.
As Josephine, Borle slaps on some glasses and uses a Midwestern brogue that also conjures Mira Sorvino in “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.” A running gag that Josephine looks old — offending Joe — is funny. But the smirky performance is too tongue-in-cheek to be believable.
Ghee, full of charisma, fares better as Daphne. The actor has a more emotional storyline than an uproarious one and their big number “You Could’ve Knocked Me Over With a Feather” is expressive and exciting, even if it sounds a lot like “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” from Shaiman and Wittman’s “Hairspray.”
On board the train, the duo meet Sugar Cane (Adrianna Hicks), the Syncopators’ singer, and womanizing Joe struggles to tamp down his libido while in drag. Playing Sugar, Hicks has a powerful voice, but Monroe’s je ne sais quois is missed. So much of the character, we realize, was Monroe’s iconic personality — and without it there’s not much left except the script not knowing what to do with Sugar’s drinking problem.
During the first act, especially, Shaiman and Wittman’s derivative jazz score pummels you with generic-ness and volume. Every song sounds like a shouted version of “Honey Bun” from “South Pacific.” Tune titles like “Vamp!” and “Zee Bap” scream in our faces like unhinged lunatics on Eighth Avenue, and the duo behind “Hairspray” has seemingly lost the ability to find jokes and develop characters with their music.
They end the first half with their song “Let’s Be Bad” from TV’s “Smash,” which, lest we forget, was a humongous flop for NBC.
In Act 2, the band arrives at a grand hotel in California. And, come to think of it, “Some Like It Hot” would benefit from a director-choreographer like Tommy Tune of “Grand Hotel,” who knows how to creatively make the most of a bar or a bellhop. Director Casey Nicholaw doesn’t and, therefore, packs in unmotivated tap dancing anywhere he can. At first the tap is dazzling, but the shimmer fades to monotony. Scott Pask’s metallic period set is Art Meh-co.
The West Coast antics are meant to be farcical. Daphne ends up in a flirtation with the wealthy Osgood (Kevin Del Aguila) and Jerry adopts a third persona as a German film producer to woo Sugar. Nicholaw tacks on a long madcap “Benny Hill” chase sequence near the end with gangsters, cops and the band that’s logistically impressive but hardly hysterical. Act 2, for all its plot complications, is eerily calm.
The funniest people in the show, actually, are NaTashha Yvette Williams as Sweet Sue and Angie Schworer as the Society Syncopators’ manager of sorts. Kudos to them, but their prodigious skill and knack for a punchline underlines the lead actors’ lacking material.
I’ve heard “Some Like It Hot” described a lot as an “old-fashioned musical comedy.” And, yes, it sure feels old. But the shows that those folks are referencing, and that this musical aspires to be — “Guys and Dolls,” “The Music Man,” “Anything Goes” — sparked with innovation in their time (and, ya know, had strong scores and books).
Unlike “Some,” they were hot.