Taking a classic film comedy — especially one that deals fast and loose with gender and sexuality — and turning it into a major Broadway musical is far from a sure thing in these contemporary times. But the creative team behind the latest stage musical version of the 1959 film “Some Like It Hot” brings fresh perspectives and a different kind of fun to the iconic film that memorably starred Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe.
This stage production boasts blistering performances, dandy twists and turns, razzmatazz dancing and a whole lotta energy (under Cassie Niccolò’s smart, playful direction and choreography) — all of which should please new audiences without alienating original fans. If songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (“Hairspray,” “Smash”) don’t always score high marks, well: nobody’s perfect.
The musical’s narrative very loosely follows the original screenplay by Billy Wilder (who directed the film) and his collaborator IAL Diamond. (To the program’s credit, the show is “based on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture,” with no credit to the original writing duo.) The new script by Tony Award-winner Matthew Lopez (“The Inheritance”) and Amber Ruffin — Christian Borle and Joe Farrell ” “Additional Material” — beautifully captures the film’s time and setting from the late Roaring 20s to the tough job market — and the stylish Art Deco period — 1933. Set by Scott Pask and costumes by Greg Barnes.
Band leader Sweet Sue (Natasha Yvette Williams) and lead singer Sugar Kane (Adriana Hicks) are both black, and their all-girl band is now West instead of South with new saxophonist Joe (Christian Borle) and bassist Jerry (J. Harrison Ghee). Going ) escapes under the guise of Josephine and Daphne after witnessing a mob hit in Chicago.
But the main change is one of attitude. Instead of just running wild with the movie’s overriding straight-man-in-drag-flying-for-their-lives gag, the show changes the lead pair’s perspective enough to give the story a surprising, contemporary feel and make it more about the self. Discovery rather than boy-in-heels. This reimagining doesn’t just relocate a hit film and plonk it on stage, but transforms it into a true study of gender and identity — but still one with plenty of laughs.
The script gives the musician friends, Sugar, and even the show’s sugar daddy, Osgood (Kevin Del Aguila, in a performance that’s both endearing and contrived) a backstory, full of relationships and cultural context. The dynamic between Borle and Ghee’s characters — and their female counterparts — has been recalibrated, all for the better. Instead of competing for the affections of a love object, they are now discovering the complexities of their feminine roles.
That complexity also extends to the characters. Instead of the film’s very prim and beautiful Josephine, Borl’s alter ego bears a striking resemblance to Jackie Hoffman – and a running gag schtick about her living appearance is not to be missed. While Curtis adopted a Cary Grant persona for his other wild impersonation, the script stars a German screenwriter – one of the film’s several clever hat-tips. Throughout, Borle’s comic timing and singing are impeccable; He makes his character’s latent sympathy quite touching and well-earned.
But it’s Ghee’s Daphne who is a stunner in every sense of the word. Their personal growth and appreciation of their feminine side gives this adaptation heart without losing its humor. It’s the duality of Ghee’s performance that is a revelation, a constant delight and whose self-actualizing number, “You Could Knock Me Over With a Feather” is the highlight of the show.
Although still weak, this new sugar isn’t as fragile, naïve, or needy as Monroe, and Hicks (“Six”) makes her a real person and less of a sex goddess, though still alluring. With Hicks’ fine vocals, this sugar is clearly headed for a bigger and better career than fronting for a resort band.
The role of Sweet Sue is also well developed, and Williams excels in everything from her powerful vocals (with some terrific scat singing) to her hysterically funny delivery – especially with Minnie, Sue’s wingwoman, played to loopy perfection by Angie Schwarer.
Also lending solid support are Adam Heller as lawyer Mulligan and Mark Lotito as kingpin mobster Spats (who gets one of the best exit lines of the era).
Where the show disappoints is the score, although the performances, arrangements and orchestration are always top notch. While the title song is catchy (and cleverly used in the show’s advanced promo), most of the rest of the tunes are just okay, with lyrics that are often metaphorically tiresome and too on the nose. Sugar’s numbers, which should be impressive – and which Hicks delivers with everything he has – are simply generic.
One sometimes wishes for the catchier Jules Stine/Bob Merrill score of “Sugar,” the first Broadway musical go-round for the story in 1972 — and even from the touring version revised as “Some Like It Hot” from 2002, starring Tony Curtis Osgood. Accept the role.
Still, the many plusses of this new adaptation add up considerably. What could have been a dated drag farce ends up being a show that many will love – a musical full of fun, energy and heart.