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‘Some Like It Hot’ makes a modern case for a screen gem

Transforming beloved IP into compelling musical theater is an inexact science, but the transformation part is nonnegotiable.

Christian Borle and J. Harrison Ghee in 'Some Like It Hot' on Broadway (Photo credit: Marc J. Franklin)

Transforming beloved IP into compelling musical theater is an inexact science, but the transformation part is nonnegotiable. As the discard pile of recent VHS-inspired flops can attest, audiences need a reason why stories are worth our attention here and now, and why razzle and dazzle are the way to tell them. “Some Like It Hot,” which opened at the Shubert Theatre tonight, manages to speak to the moment with sizzle, polish and expert understanding of how to please a crowd. It is a grand, old-fashioned love letter to the form with a slick and engaging contemporary gloss, both wholly recognizable as a template for Broadway success and smartly attentive to the times.

Often cited among the best films ever made, “Some Like It Hot” is remarkably well suited to stage adaptation. (It has been done several times before, including with a score by “Funny Girl” team Jule Styne and Bob Merrill.) Billy Wilder’s 1959 caper is a Blue Apron box brimming with staples of midcentury musicals: a platonic odd couple of questionable moral standing, cross-country train travel, mistaken identity, showbiz, mobsters, jazz. Throw on some heat, a satisfying sprawl of head-spinning tap dance — a speciality of director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw — and the response is Pavlovian.

The plot’s musical potential is obvious: When womanizing sax player Joe (Christian Borle) and level-headed bassist Jerry (J. Harrison Ghee) witness a mafia hit, they don dresses to go on the lam with an all-woman traveling band, fronted by movie-star hopeful Sugar Kane (Adrianna Hicks), and a vaudeville roadshow ensues.

The score — with music by Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman — is buoyant and brassy, targeting familiar pleasure centers with enough invention to feel enticingly fresh, in songs that illustrate character and relationships while serving as star vehicles. A number in which Sugar dreams of becoming the Black screen siren she never saw as a kid is an especially effective example of the score’s blend of convention and innovation.

Matthew López and Amber Ruffin make fun and nimble work of modernizing the screenplay, honoring the film’s spirit of old-timey gags, but with punchlines and running jokes that try shifting focus from its dated conceit. Borle’s dolled-up Josephine is constantly ribbed for her age, in an attempt to deflect from the more apparent reason she stands out. The laughs land, but the evasiveness is also tough to ignore. How do you refigure a comedy about cross-dressing for a social climate in which acceptance of gender diversity has real and urgent stakes?

“Some Like It Hot” ventures to answer with the character of Daphne, for whom feminine dress starts out as a disguise but leads to personal revelation. “The lady that I’m lovin’ is me,” Daphne sings, eventually embracing the persona as essential to their identity. In spirit and execution, Ghee is radiant, and their performance more expansive than the details on the page, which tend to indicate either side of a binary rather than emphasizing the space in between. (Daphne frames her metamorphosis as irreversible — “you’ll never get toothpaste back in the tube” — and later says she’ll answer to either name, as long as it’s said with love and respect.)

Still, Ghee is a lynchpin in the production’s convincing case for the power of socially conscious fantasy. That Ghee immediately appears far more at ease in a frock and heels than Borle’s Josephine subtly points to everyone else’s fixation on what sorts of bodies ought to wear particular clothes. The show is also attentive to the discrimination its Black characters face while allowing them full liberty to thrive in its imaginative world, including Sugar as a bombshell frontwoman and Sweet Sue (NaTasha Yvette Williams) as the band’s ambitious proprietor.

Both are among the production’s strongest assets, with Hicks belting her cheeks red and Williams casually landing some of the script’s biggest laughs. Ghee and Borle are fantastic on their feet as the Tip Tap Twins (turned trio, when Sugar joins them). And though the script doesn’t quite know what to do with Joe — a lone white male lothario surrounded by more evolved, and frankly more interesting characters — Borle proves why he’s the go-to for leading men who are slightly off and eek by on charm.

Nicholaw’s signatures — evident in taut comedic timing, the fleet-footed flow of physical staging and choreography that strives for abundance — are especially fitted to the story. And the richness of Scott Pask’s set design (Chrysler Building lines, handsome reveals), costumes by Gregg Barnes (saturated jewel tones, chic prints) and lighting by Natasha Katz create a seductive visual landscape that’s hard to resist.

The musical ultimately positions its title song as a testament to the diverse possibilities of desire — some like it this way, others that. It’s simple enough for a children’s lesson, but one that everyone could stand to hear.

“Some Like It Hot” opened at the Shubert Theatre on Dec. 11, 2022.

Review photo: Marc J. Franklin

Creative: Book by Matthew López and Amber Ruffin; Music by Marc Shaiman; Lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman; Directed by Casey Nicholaw; Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw; Based on the screenplay “Some Like it Hot” by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond; Suggested by a story by Robert Thoeren; Additional Material by Christian Borle and Joe Farrell; Musical direction by Darryl Archibald; Music orchestrated by Charlie Rosen and Bryan Carter; Dance and incidental music arrangements by Glen Kelly; Scenic design by Scott Pask; Costume design by Gregg Barnes; Lighting design by Natasha Katz; Sound design by Brian Ronan; Hair and wig design by Josh Marquette; Makeup design by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira.

Produced by The Shubert Organization (Robert E. Wankel: Chairman and CEO; Elliot Greene: Chief Operating Officer; Charles Flateman: Executive Vice President) and Neil Meron.

Cast: Christian Borle, J. Harrison Ghee, Adrianna Hicks, Kevin Del Aguila, Adam Heller, Mark Lotito, NaTasha Yvette Williams, Tia Altinay, TyNia René Brandon, Ian Campayno, DeMarius Copes, Casey Garvin, Devon Hadsell, Ashley Elizabeth Hale, Jenny Hill, K.J. Hippensteel, Jarvis B. Manning, Jr., Brian Thomas Martin, Abby Matsusaka, Amber Owens, Kayla Pecchioni, Angie Schworer, Charles South, Brendon Stimson, Raena White, Julius Williams, Richard Riaz Yoder.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the spelling of the character of Sugar’s last name.