There are several chase scenes in Some Like It Hot, the heaviest musical adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy film. Several figures are busy on the stage, usually in tap shoes, running down the stairs and in and out. But as the chase continues, it becomes increasingly unclear what they are fleeing from or towards. As befits a show with at least two drummers, the show rushes to the beat of multiple drums. And as the name of the show’s group, the Syncopated Sisters, suggests, Some Like It Hot often dances right in front or a kick or two behind.
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Basically, the outlines of the movie and the musical overlap. Two Chicago musicians, Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in the original, Christian Borle and J Harrison Ghee here) watch a crowd hit. They then go on the loose, with wigs and bobbed heels, dressing up as Josephine and Daphne, members of an all-female jazz combo led by drunken singer Sugar Kane (Adrianna Hicks, stuck as Marilyn Monroe). Joe falls in love with Sugar. A giddy millionaire swoops down on Daphne. The crowd is in pursuit. One way or another, everything ends well. In the film, when Daphne confesses her gender identity, the millionaire happily responds, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”
As comedies go, the film almost is, which makes any adaptation a difficult proposition. This one, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, has songs by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman and a book by Matthew López and Amber Ruffin (a later addition, once it was realized that a show that ripped off a much of its comedy to men dressing like women may want at least one woman on the creative team). Luckily, he wants his audience to have a great night out, and the production elements, like the art deco whimsy of a Scott Pask set, glittering costumes by Gregg Barnes, pearlescent lights by Natasha Katz, are a celebration of glamor and of Broadway excess. A handful of performances — primarily, Ghee’s Jerry and Daphne, Kevin Del Aguila’s dippy millionaire, and Angie Schworer in a smaller role — serve up dazzling dazzle on a silver platter.
But the show itself feels loudly overworked and incomplete, an attempt to bend the source material into shapes it doesn’t want to take. Many of the songs sound like pastiches of other best songs, like Let’s Be Bad, borrowed from Wittman and Shaiman’s Smash soundtrack and indebted to All That Jazz, or Ride Out the Storm, which wants to be Stormy Weather and doesn’t. is not. Some songs, like a few Hicks numbers, A Darker Shade of Blue and At the Old Majestic Nickel Matinee, shouldn’t be there at all.
In previews, complaints emerged, from the darkest corners of Broadway’s message boards, that the show was too woke for its own good. Awakening simply refers to an awareness of the systemic biases and injustice, past and present, that any revival or new adaptation should have. Here, Lopez and Ruffin penned Jerry/Daphne, Sugar, and bandleader Sweet Sue as clever extensions of the original. But wanting to treat the comedy of men in dresses with more care and sensitivity – a terrific goal in itself – changes the meaning of Some Like It Hot itself. The original, in its sophistication and ambivalence, is a celebration of the disguise, quick wit, silver tongue and wild cheek that allowed Joe and Jerry to juggle their multiple fictions. Yet in this version (as in López’s earlier play, The Legend of Georgia McBride), flirting becomes a means of self-acceptance, a beribboned path to the truth. It is the scruple that is celebrated here, not the scam. Here’s the millionaire’s response to Daphne this time: “You’re perfect.”
By donning a dress, Jerry discovers a non-binary identity, although this language is not yet available to Jerry. “I have no words for what I feel, I just feel more like my self I’ve had in my whole life,” Jerry told Joe. This revelation gives the show its best song, You Coulda Knocked Me Over With a Feather, an anthem to self-discovery. Ghee, who also identifies as non-binary, sings it in chunks. Gorgeous, full-bodied and tailor-made for her performer, Feather doesn’t look like she’s trying to be anything else. And in this silly, woozy, pretty show, with its endless tap numbers, it doesn’t exactly fit.