Based on Billy Wilder’s 1959 MGM classic, the rousing new comedy musical Some Like It Hot opened at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre on December 11th. With a peppy book by The Inheritance playwright Matthew López and comedian Amber Ruffin, the music is composed by Marc Shaiman, who co-wrote the lyrics with his Hairspray partner Scott Wittman. The framework of the film’s plot remains, while the show brings a modern eye to ideas around gender identity and expression, and diversifies its characters, acknowledging the racial discrimination of the era. Although the laughs might not come quite as thick and fast as they do in movie, the musical makes up for it with its gloriously full big band sound and director Casey Nicholaw’s dazzling choreography that delivers ensemble numbers that really sizzle.
Magnetic band leader Sweet Sue McGinty’s (NaTasha Yvette Williams) bravura jazzy opener “What Are You Thirsty For?” thrillingly initiates us into Chicago, 1933, in the midst of the Great Depression and the twilight months of Prohibition. As the mood quickly switches from sombre and sober to boisterous and boozy, Natasha Katz’s crisp lighting goes up to reveal the Art Deco splendor of Scott Pask’s sumptuous speakeasy set, typical of this no-expense-spared production that continually impresses as it immerses us in the world of the show. Following Orry-Kelly’s Oscar win for the movie, Gregg Barnes’ sparkling costumes never disappoint as they evoke the period’s glitz and glamour.
From the off, Williams is magnificent as Sue, making the most of every line and movement, while her powerhouse vocals are sublime. Utterly captivating, she conveys Sue’s commanding presence as a Black woman who more than holds her own in this white patriarchal society and a gritty nightlife scene run by gangsters. Williams’ smoking hot performance forms the fiery core of Some Like It Hot and should see her in the running for a Tony and more come awards season.
Next, we meet struggling musicians and hoofers-for-hire, Joe (Christian Borle), who is white, and Jerry (J. Harrison Ghee), who is Black, with Borle and Ghee instantly creating an appealing rapport that feels lived-in and layered. Calling themselves the Tip Tap Twins, they’ve been as close as siblings since childhood, when Joe’s dad ran out on him and he was taken in by Jerry’s family on the South Side. Now in their 30s—though Joe’s older appearance is an amusing running joke—the pair soon finds themselves forced to go on the run after witnessing a notorious mob boss, Spats Columbo (Mark Lotito), take out some of his own goons. In a bid to flee the Windy City unscathed, Joe hatches an outlandish plan to disguise themselves as women, going by Josephine and Daphne. They mange to get hired by Sue to play sax and bass in her band, the Society Syncopators, just as the all-girl group is about to head out West by train to San Diego, gigging as they go. Along the way, Joe (in the guise of Josephine) falls hard for the band’s young chanteuse starlet Sugar Kane (Adrianna Hicks) and once in California, the self-described “poor little millionaire”, Osgood Fielding III (Kevin Del Aguila), takes an immediate shine to Daphne. Meanwhile, Spats is determined to track the duo down before the FBI can protect them.
We quickly learn that deception is one of Joe’s inherited traits from his counterfeiter parents and that he has a history of inventing false personas to get his way with women. For him, donning a dress, makeup, and wig—along with an eccentric accent—is a means to an end. He grudgingly puts on Josephine and is relieved to take her off as a character, all the while dreaming of his escape across the border to Mexico. For Jerry, things are different. Jerry doesn’t “put on” Daphne, instead the transformation is a liberating one of self-discovery, not a disguise to be “taken off”. Once Jerry leaves Chicago, we only see the character as Daphne for the rest of the show. Daphne crosses the border, both literally for a night in Mexico, and metaphorically, as they sing to Joe when describing how they’ve found and embraced their gender fluidity. Daphne doesn’t have today’s terminology to express themselves, telling Joe, “I am, in fact, both Daphne and Jerry. I don’t have the word for what I feel. I just feel more like my self than I have in all my life.” Ultimately, the most meaningful romance in the show isn’t so much between Sugar and Joe, or Daphne and Osgood, but the one that Daphne has with herself. Her high-kicking exuberance culminates in her buoyant number, “You Coulda Knocked Me Over With A Feather”, in which she declares to Joe, “the lady that I’m lovin’ is me”.
Having played Lola in Kinky Boots on Broadway and Velma Kelly in St. Louis’ Muny Theatre production of Chicago, Ghee, who is nonbinary and queer, collaborated with the creators of Some Like It Hot to bring some of their own personal experience to the role, resulting in a performance that feels deeply connected. In the midst of all the vibrant noise from the band and exhilarating fancy footwork, Ghee delivers sensitive, nuanced, and finely calibrated work as Daphne, creating some touching moments as we see her gradually become more self-assured and radiant. She emerges like a butterfly, as Osgood puts it in his sweet and gentle mariachi-infused number, “Fly, Mariposa, Fly”.
Spending time as Josephine in what Sue terms “No Man’s Land”, comes with its own revelations for Joe who gains an unexpected insight into how he’s been treating women, as he reveals in the introspective verses of “He Lied When He Said Hello”. Being unable to make a move on Sugar as he gets to know her as Josephine leads to him to see her as more than a potential conquest. Later, Joe traps himself into taking on another persona to woo Sugar, that of Kip, a big shot German screenwriter with another ridiculous, but very funny, accent and turn of phrase. Rather than the scenario he’d imagined playing out, of promising to make her a star, getting her drunk on bubbly, and then taking her to bed, they end up spending the evening talking. The climax isn’t sexual, but a romantic, breathtakingly staged Golden Age Hollywood musical-style tap number in front of glittering star curtain. Regardless of how Joe presents himself to Sugar, she recognizes what’s on the inside, telling him that she can see his heart.
One of the show’s thematic threads is the difference between how we’re perceived from the outside and how we feel on the inside, summed up by a poignantly delivered observation that Osgood makes to Daphne: “the world reacts to what it sees and in my experience the world doesn’t have very good eyesight”. Heir to a soft drink fortune, Osgood fits into American high society by not drawing attention to his Mexican roots. While Sugar Kane has named herself something that she feels is more befitting of her Hollywood aspirations than her given name, telling Daphne and Josephine, “a person should be able to call themselves whatever they want.”
Adrianna Hicks, who is engaging throughout with an easy charm about her as Sugar, beautifully delivers one of the show’s most affecting songs, “At the Old Majestic Nickel Matinee”. In it, Sugar opens up to Josephine about sitting in the balcony of her local segregated movie house in small-town Georgia as a child picturing herself on the silver screen, which led to her dream of being a star so that future young girls will be able to see themsleves in her. Later, she brings the house down with her smoldering bluesy 11 o’clock number, “Ride Out The Storm”.
In their approach to Sugar, the writers looked not to Marilyn Monroe’s iconic performance in the movie for inspiration, but instead to trailblazing singer, actress, and civil rights activist Lena Horne. Though traces of the apparently ditzy, but knowing blonde archetype are present in the form of Sue’s right-hand woman Minnie (Angie Schworer), who gets some of the biggest laughs in the show landed by Schworer’s and Williams’ impeccable comic timing. Like when Minnie aks Sue if the band is going to head South and Sue simply replies, “It’s 1933. Look at me and ask that again.” It’s often in these kinds of pithy, darkly comic exchanges that the experience of being Black in Jim Crow era America is addressed, with Black characters reminding their white friends of the discrimination and dangers that they face. When Joe suggests getting a job at the Cheetah Club, Jerry has to point out that the establishment “prides themselves on their all-white band”. They are initially turned away from the place as a double act, until they enthrall the club owner—and the audience—with their spectacular tap duet. While Sue is forced to stand up to one of the clubs en route to California when they attempt to underpay the Syncopators performance fee. Along with Sugar and Daphne, Sue is determined to resist what society has stacked against her and forge the life that she wants for herself.
Although it comes hot on the heels of other Broadway movie-to-musical adaptations like Tootsie in 2019 and Mrs Doubtfire earlier this year, Some Like It Hot determinedly avoids relying on the sight of men in women’s clothing for its humour, though some audience members might initially react to it that way. Rather than simply imposing a modern reading on the source material, the creators have reexamined the seeds of what’s already there in its subtext of the film, like Jerry gleefully naming himself Daphne and an ending that hinted that Jerry and Osgood might remain together regardless of their gender. It’s an exploration that gives this retelling its purpose as it places Black queer joy at its centre and brings an emotional heart to this consistently pleasurable show. While the overall pacing of the first act lacks a little zip here and there, the second act really zings, building to an electrifying, brilliantly conceived and skillfully staged hotel door-swinging, farcical dance chase set-piece that shows off the company’s considerable talents and is worth the ticket price alone. Some Like It Hot is a surefire hit that might just open some minds as it entertains.
By James Kleinmann
Some Like It Hot opened at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre (225 West 44th Street) on Sunday, December 11th, 2022. Tickets are available at Telecharge.com.
A limited number of in-person rush tickets will be available at each performance for $40/ticket when the box office opens the day of the performance at the Shubert Theatre. The box office is open Tuesday through Saturday starting at 10am and Sunday at 12pm.
The digital lottery for Some Like It Hot can be found at SomeLikeItHotMusicalLottery.com. Entries for the digital lottery start at 12:00am, one day before the performance, and end that same day at 3:00pm. Winners are drawn at 9:00am for matinees and 3:00pm for evening shows. Winners may buy up to two tickets at $40 each plus a $5 service fee.