No, No, Nanette's genesis has more teeth than the musical itself. It all started with a 1919 story, "My Lady Friends," by May Edington, which was turned into a successful stage play by producer H.H. Frazee. By 1925 Frazee, by all accounts a blustering tyrant, had squeezed everything he could get out of the play, so he hired Otto Harbach and Vincent Youmans to turn the material into a musical.
But the script was rocky, and at the eleventh hour Frazee brought in lyricist Irving Caesar, who rewrote half the show. Caesar was perfect for the job, as he was known for being able to crank out a song in less than fifteen minutes. In his book, The Making of No, No, Nanette, journalist and lyricist Don Dunn tells a funny story about how Caesar and Youmans created "Tea for Two." Caesar was napping on a couch before a big night of drinking. Youmans, doodling around on the piano, came up with a catchy melody. He woke Caesar up and demanded that the lyricist put words to his little song. Caesar, anxious to go out and party, came up with dummy words so he would remember the tune, promising to put real words in the next day. Needless to say, the dummy words stuck, and for generations to come parents had a ditty to sing as they bathed their children.
Nearly a half-century later, in 1971, another ruthless producer rose to the challenge of bringing No, No, Nanette to the stage. Cyma Rubin was a first-time Broadway producer determined to make a profit no matter the human cost. Known as the Black Witch for her demeanor, her black clothes, and her tendency to fire people without warning, Rubin headed up an odd crew even by theatrical standards. Her coproducer Harry Rigby brought in the moribund Busby Berkeley as director and choreographer. At the time Berkeley was in his mid-seventies and hadn't worked in decades. He ended up pushed to the side, where he was attacked by showgirls trying to get a part by flashing their breasts in an open audition and Instamatic-toting drag queens determined to be photographed with him.
It was also Rigby's idea to bring in '30s-era hoofer Ruby Keeler, who hadn't danced in forty years and really didn't want to go back onstage. Although Keeler couldn't act and there was anxious buzz about casting so old a principal, her comeback turned out to be triumphant.
For all the grief it's caused, the musical has the substance of cotton candy. Jimmy Smith is a kind, wealthy, and upstanding publisher of Bibles. He's probably too kind -- three young damsels in various forms of distress have latched onto him, and he's shelling out plenty for art school, violin lessons, and general maintenance. His relationship with each lovely is perfectly chaste, but will his frugal and proper wife Sue believe that? Yeah, right.
So Jimmy sics his lawyer Billy on the women, with orders to pay them off and get rid of them. Meanwhile Jimmy and Sue's ward, Nanette, is chafing at their restrictions, as well as those of her wedding-happy beau, Tom. She just wants to go to Atlantic City with her flapper friends for a weekend of sun, sand, and sherbet-colored bathing costumes. Everyone -- flappers, gold-diggers, Jimmy and Billy and their wives, Nanette and Tom -- end up at the Smiths' Chickadee Cottage in Atlantic City, where two marriages and a courtship threaten to fall to pieces. There's plenty of singing, chorus girls balance prettily on massive beach balls like circus seals, and Jimmy finds a way to make sure that everyone ends up happy.
Director Dottie Lester was a chorine in the '71 revival and benefited from the Black Witch's ruthlessness (all told, Rubin fired 35 people after rehearsals had started, several of them members of the chorus). Lester succeeded one of the women Rubin fired, toured with Nanette, and was in the two-year Broadway run. Since then, she's directed the show at other theaters, and she knows it backward and forward. As Diablo Light Opera Company producer Helene Harks explained, Lester was a natural choice to direct the Walnut Creek production.
While this show is solid (and doubtless more evenly handled than its predecessor), I wonder if it wouldn't have benefited from having a director who hadn't watched the 1971 revival take shape. For example, at one point Sue calls her friend Lucille (Billy's wife) on the phone. Sue fires off her lines without a single pause for a response, and then hangs up. This awkward choice was made by director Burt Shevelove for the 1971 production because his Sue, Ruby Keeler, couldn't remember lines. Apparently Shevelove figured she'd retain them better if she didn't have to pause. And the part of Pauline the maid seems doomed to be played by a comedienne directed to let her antics overwhelm the acting around her. While Zoe Conner is very funny here (as was Patsy Kelly on Broadway), it still unbalances the first act. I sense that Lester is so committed to the version she knows that making dramatic changes would be heresy.
Of course, certain commonalities between the two productions are welcome. Just as in the Broadway revival, where the producer and one of the actresses were mother and daughter, the Walnut Creek production boasts another mother-daughter team. This time it's Sheri Stockdale as Sue and Suzanne Brandt in the chorus. Both are wonderful dancers, and there's something dear about seeing a young woman going into the family business with so much poise. Although all the dancers are skilled, Brandt draws the eye with her smooth grace and presence. Meanwhile, Stockdale puts the lie to the idea that a showgirl is washed up by thirty; as my grandmother would say, she's got great gams. She's also a much better actress than the role was written to accommodate (Shevelove cut many of Sue's lines so Keeler wouldn't be taxed beyond her capabilities).
Terry Darcy D'Emidio (Lucille) sings beautifully. Fortunately she gets the first song, the very funny "Too Many Rings Around Rosie," and the emotional number, "Where-Has-My-Hubby-Gone Blues." She and Michael Fryken as husband Billy really shine in the second-act "You Can Dance with Any Girl You Want," both singing and dancing. Up until that point I found Fryken's Billy less than convincing as a lady-killer, but the chemistry between the two in this song and later in the third act is more believable.
Like its title character, No, No, Nanette is a gentle slip of a thing. The raciest moment has to be when Lucille sings that before she wised up and got married, "[boys] ate my candy, then they'd go." As Shevelove told his cast on the first day of rehearsals (he was stalling for time, as he had no script for them), "The world today is not a pretty place. It is filled with terrible news every day of Vietnam, campus riots, pollution, crime, inflation. The audiences that will come to see our show will have heard enough ... about all those things. We must take their minds off those problems and make them concerned with only this: Will Nanette, this innocent little child, get her wish and spend a weekend in Atlantic City? Nothing else, nothing else at all is important. This warm, sunny, lovely little show must be our valentine to the audience." Audiences wishing for colorful nostalgia in our own turbulent times need look no farther than the Dean Lesher Center for their valentine.