An unregenerate admirer of Billy Wilder, I have strong bias where his movies are concerned, and an even greater prejudice regarding Some Like It Hot. Wilder’s 1959 excursion into drag, ambisexuality, bloodshed, and Marilyn Monroe is, I think, the finest of all sound-era comedies and contains, in Jack Lemmon, the greatest comic performance ever captured on celluloid.

Wilder hasn’t fared well in musical theatre. Promises, Promises had Jerry Orbach, a twitchy Bacharach-David score, Michael Bennett choreography, and not much else. Sunset Boulevard had… well, I don’t know precisely what it had, but it sure wasn’t Swanson, Holden, or Wilder.

Which brings us to Some Like It Hot — The Musical, currently playing Raleigh Memorial Auditorium as part of Broadway Series South. On Broadway 31 years ago, this show went under the name Sugar. It was a contentious production, during which the composer, lyricist, and librettist were locked out of super-director Gower Champion’s rehearsals. It’s hard to craft a musical comedy under those conditions, and it shows: the Jule Styne-Bob Merrill score is sub-standard, far beneath Styne’s work on Gypsy, Do Re Mi, Funny Girl, and even Subways Are for Sleeping. Peter Stone, who wrote the rickety book, is a man with greatness in him (1776, Charade); but the biggest laughs here come verbatim from the original Wilder-I.A.L. Diamond screenplay.

Sugar wasn’t much better then than Some Like It Hot is now, but in 1972 it at least had Robert Morse in the Lemmon role, and Cyril Ritchard taking over for Joe E. Brown. Now all it has is Tony Curtis.

(Well, Curtis and one stunning tap-dancer named William Ryall, whose presence is almost enough to keep this glorified high school musical of a show going….)

The plot you already know: penniless musicians Joe (sax) and Jerry (bass) witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, hide out in an all-girl band heading to Florida, and meet a dipsomaniac singer named Sugar, who has a penchant for saxophone players, and Osgood Fielding, who is a wealthy old roué whose roving eye lights on Jerry. Just your standard, innocuous 1950s comedy with mob executions, homosexual suggestion, and fellatio jokes.

The casting of Curtis is sheer gimmickry, trading on his connection to the movie. He spends his part of the evening displaying his plastic surgery, basking in celebrity, and being effortlessly charming, but he’s not a patch on the peerless Brown. Beginning his first number, he seems about to approximate the Sprechstimme style of Rex Harrison but all he does is recite the lyrics; the chorus does the singing for him. To give the putative star a big solo, someone decided to bring in the old Sinatra standard “I Fall in Love Too Easily” (music by one Jule Styne.) But it makes little sense: Osgood is a purely comic character, not an emotive one. The costume Suzy Benzinger has come up with for Curtis is, to say the least, curious. He seems to be wearing William Shatner’s old girdle, and his lifts are higher than the heels his co-stars are forced to wear.

Still, Curtis fares better than poor Larry Storch, who as the band’s myopic manager wanders about trying to inject some life into a role not so much under-written as un-written. His shtick is often endearing, but the audience has eyes only for Tony, and pretty much ignores him. There’s no ignoring Jodi Carmeli as the hapless Sugar, or her belt-it-to-the-back-wall singing style. Histrionically, alas, all she’s required to do is imitate Monroe for two hours. Some part. At least she gets to perform one of the score’s better songs, “People in My Life,” to Riddle-esque saxes and muted horns.

Arthur Hanket does well by Joe’s big number “It’s Always Love” (one of the few distinguished songs in the score) but his “Damn it all!” makes one pine for the frustrated rage Tony Roberts poured into that one line. Of Timothy Gulan, the show’s Jerry… well, how would you like to be compared with Jack Lemmon? Gulan doesn’t channel his predecessor so much as he does Tom Hanks (“Bosom Buddies,” anyone?) — that is, when he isn’t mugging outrageously. Come back, Bobby Morse!

It’s William Ryall, in the show’s abridgement of the George Raft character Spats, who takes the evening’s honors. Virtually all of this musical’s ingenuity is centered on Ryall, a tall drink of water who, in a nod to Raft’s origins as both hoofer and gangland confidante, turns tap into a metaphor for gunplay. With his propulsive energy and fluid ankles, Ryall lifts John Berkman’s dance music and the director Dan Siretta’s choreography into the terpsichorean stratosphere and makes Spats’ dance of death (he’s literally boxed in) a thing of comic beauty. You’ll alternately wonder why he’s in this tacky mélange and be supremely grateful that he is. Some Like It Hot needs him more than he needs it.

Broadway Series South presents Some Like It Hot — The Musical Thursday-Friday, Feb. 20-21, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 22, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 23, at 2 and 7 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $16-$66. 919/834-4000 or Groups of 20+: 919/231-4575 or [inactive 4/04] or [inactive 7/04].

& 2/21

SECOND OPINION by Robert W. McDowell: Broadway Series South Review: On Opening Night, Some Like It Hot Starts Late But Finishes to a Hearty Standing Ovation

On Tuesday, Feb. 18, last weekend’s ice storm nearly claimed another victim. Thanks to the winter storm savaging the East Coast, the bulk of the cast and crew of Some Like It Hot — The Musical could not land at Raleigh-Durham International Airport until about 7 p.m. that night. They got a police escort to Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, and soon thereafter they kept their date with the first-nighters of Broadway Series South.

The show started late and the opening-night performance was a little ragged, as might be expected under the circumstances. But it was not nearly as bad as the some of the local reviews might lead you to believe. In fact, the performance earned an enthusiastic and lengthy standing ovation at its conclusion. So the paying customers, as a group, seemed well satisfied.

Granted, the show’s headliner, 77-year-old Tony Curtis, is no longer as handsome or as slim or as spry as he was in his salad days. He was never as tall as some other leading men of his generation, but the fact that he wears lifts could easily have gone unremarked. It had no bearing on his performance in this highly entertaining musical produced by Diane Masters, Jeffrey Spolan, Robert Dragotta, Michael Jenkins, and Richard Martini in association with MGM on Stage.

In the classic 1959 screwball comedy directed by Billy Wilder, Curtis played Joe, a fugitive saxophone player forced to don drag to escape murder by a band of gangsters in hot pursuit. Cast against type in the current musical, Curtis plays the show’s resident “dirty old man,” the marrying millionaire Osgood Fielding III, with little of the comic flair that he brought to various stage and screen roles earlier in his career. But his interpretation of the role was not so much bad as it was very, very different from the portrayal of Fielding in the movie Some Like It Hot by homely big-mouthed comedian Joe E. Brown — an oddball’s oddball — who played the eccentric womanizer with a gusto than bordered on perversity and may have crossed over in the film’s famous final scene in which Osgood insists on marrying Daphne (Jack Lemmon in drag) despite the on-the-lam bass-fiddle player’s confession that “she” is not a real blonde or a virgin or even a woman. “Well, nobody’s perfect,” Osgood replies.

Tuesday night, the former matinee idol played Osgood more as a handsome Golden Boy. Sure, he more spoke than sang his lyrics; and his dancing, except for an exuberant burst during the grand finale, was a bit ragged. But so what? Virtually all of the dance numbers and the sound design by Christopher K. Bond suffered from lack of rehearsal time on the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium stage.

Tony® Award and Drama Desk Award nominee Dan Siretta directed and choreographed the show with great style and wit. Scenic designer James Leonard Joy’s gritty gangland sets, the outside and inside scenery recreating the Dixie Flyer train trip, and the lush depictions of ritzy Miami Beach and luxury yacht locales combined with costumer designer Suzy Benzinger’s flamboyant Jazz Age fashions and lighting designer Ken Billington’s artful illumination of the action to give the show an outstanding visual appeal.

Musical director Lynn Crigler and his orchestra provided strong instrumental accompaniment for a pleasant, but not particularly memorable, score by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill. Some Like It Hot — The Musical also features a 1972 book by Peter Stone based on the 1959 screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, who based their script on a story by Robert Theoren.

Besides Tony Curtis, the show’s headliners include Arthur Hanket (Joe), Timothy Gulan (Jerry), Jodi Carmeli (Sugar), William Ryall (Spats), Lenora Nemetz (Sweet Sue), and Larry Storch (Bienstock). Hanket and Gulan are terrific as two out-of-work Chicago musicians who accidentally witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, and then must flee for their lives. Forced to don drag to join an all-girl band on its way (via the Dixie Flyer) to Miami Beach, “Josephine” and “Daphne” are a real sight to behold as they wobble about in high heels and secretly ogle Sugar, the band’s voluptuous dipsomaniac lead vocalist.

Arthur Hanket demonstrates considerable comic skill as Joe, Josephine, and the shy Ted Kennedy-soundalike Shell Oil millionaire that he impersonates to woo Sugar. Likewise, Timothy Gulan makes the most of his dual roles as Jerry and Daphne. Not intimidated by walking in Jack Lemmon’s giant footsteps, Gulan gives a hilarious performance that is part Lemmon and part Tom Hanks, but mostly Timothy Gulan making the most out of considerable comic abilities.

Jodi Carmeli is a scene-stealer in the Marilyn Monroe role of Sugar. She looks like Monroe, but sings like a Broadway diva, which is something Monroe never did.

Lenora Nemetz gives a brassy performance as Sweet Sue, band leader of Sweet Sue’s Society Syncopaters. But Larry Storch merely seems bewildered (and often inaudible) as Bienstock, the band’s long-suffering manager and frequent punching bag for (not so) Sweet Sue.

Imperially thin and tall at 6’5″, with a spooky cadaverous face, William Ryall is outstanding as a trigger-happy tap-dancing Chicago gangster named Spats. The murderous outbursts of Spats and his gang-rub outs — performed as tap-dance extravaganzas — were a definite high point of the show, which definitely deserves a closer look.

Editor’s note: For Scott Ross’ review in Robert’s Reviews, see above. For Orla Swift’s review in the Raleigh, NC News & Observer, see [Retired as of 3/21/03; available in N&O archives — for a fee, for non-subscribers….]

Broadway Series South presents Some Like It Hot — The Musical Friday, Feb. 21, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 22, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 23, at 2 and 7 p.m. in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the BTI Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $16-$66. 919/834-4000 or Groups of 20+: 919/231-4575 or [inactive 4/04] or [inactive 7/04].