By Harry Forbes
It was a brilliant programming decision, to be sure: reviving “Sugar,” the 1972 adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1959 “Some Like It Hot” film, at the same time as the new musical version is currently packing them in on Broadway.
The plot line of each follows the narrative of the movie, though “Sugar” adheres much more closely to the original concept and dialogue. You have sax player Joe (Chris Cherin) and bass player Jerry (Andrew Leggieri) taking on drag disguise with an all-girl band run by Sweet Sue (Lexi Rhoades). It’s 1929 Chicago, and gangsters, who know Joe and Jerry witnessed the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, are hot on their heels. Once in the band, Joe (now Josephine) falls hard for ukulele player/vocalist Sugar Kane (Alexandra Amadao Frost), and Jerry (now Daphne) is pursued by the wealthy and randy Osgood Fielding III (Richard Rowan).
The show fits thematically into J2 Spotlight’s season of musicals derived from movies, including “The Goodbye Girl,” coming up next. The season opened with a very impressive production of Kander & Ebb’s “Woman of the Year,” directed, like all the J2 shows, by the very talented Robert M. Schneider.
What’s clear from the start here is that the score by Jule Styne (music) and Bob Merrill (lyrics) is a good one. Not on the level of their prior collaboration (“Funny Girl”), but quite enjoyable on its own terms.
Production-wise, comparisons are a case of apples and oranges, as this small-scale mounting can’t compare with Broadway. Generally, these J2 productions are beautifully designed, but on this occasion, the scope of the show -- which encompasses a train, hotel rooms, nightclubs, and a yacht -- could only be barely realized. So, too, the action didn’t have much breathing space on the compact Theatre Row stage. As it was, everything felt rather scrunched even with Schneider’s always resourceful choices.
Apart from a restored ballad for Sugar Kane -- “The People in My Life” -- cut from the original production, J2 performs the score as it was heard on Broadway, and eschews the radical changes made for the 1992 London premiere which starred Tommy Steele. (That revival closed early when Steele was injured on stage.)
As Joe and Jerry, Chris Cherin and Andrew Leggieri were solid, amusing in their female getups, though less flashily attired by costume director Gabe Bagdazian than were originators Tony Roberts and Robert Morse. They handle their opening duets --- “Penniless Bums” and “The Beauty That Drives Men Mad” -- with aplomb and shine in their climatic solos: Jerry’s “Magic Nights” and Joe’s “It’s Always Love.”
Joe actually takes on a second disguise -- a Shell Oil millionaire -- for which Cherin affects a posh upper crust accent rather than Tony Curtis’ Cary Grant voice in the movie. Curtis, by the way, starred as Osgood in a touring production years after the original.
Like role creator Elaine Joyce, Alexandra Amadao Frost has the thankless task of creating an original persona to match Marilyn Monroe’s iconic performance. And she does indeed telegraph her own brand of innocence, and renders Sugar’s yearning for a better life touchingly.
Oren Korenbum, tap-dancing mobster Spats, flanked by henchmen Dude (Caleb James Grochalski) and Lucky (Bobby MacDonnell) are all good but they really needed a more expansive playing area. And there was good character work too from Jordan Ari Gross as band manager Bienstock.
Accompaniment was under the confident leadership of Lindsay Noel-Miller (also piano), and three of the six musicians -- Jessica Stanley (trombone), Kate Amrine (trumpet), and Katy Faracy (alto saxophone) -- doubled as musicians in Sweet Sue’s onstage band, a clever (and pragmatic) touch.
(Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street; www.j2spotlightnyc.com; April 27 - May 7)
Photos: (above) Alexandra Amadeo Frost
(below) Andrew Leggieri, Chris Cherin, & Jordan Ari Gross