Gershwin From Hamptons To Harlem

There is a certain uneasiness on Broadway these days about the question of "nontraditional casting." An increasingly multiethnic talent pool has added political pressure to the normal uncertainties of theater. There have been critical complaints that certain black or Jewish performers were miscast in Shakespeare. Protests by Asian performers led to the recent banning, then unbanning, by Actors' Equity of British star Jonathan Pryce, who plays a Eurasian in the New York-bound megamusical "Miss Saigon." Black versions of white shows, long a Broadway staple, now come under sharper scrutiny: are they esthetically justified, or are they a gimmicky form of affirmative action?

Director and choreographer Dan Siretta's idea to turn George and Ira Gershwin's 1926 musical Oh, Kay! into an all-black show is no gimmick. There's an intriguing logic to his notion: hey, let's move this romantic tale of the bootlegging era from the white upper-crust world of the Hamptons to the black upper-crust world called Strivers' Row in 1920s Harlem. David Merrick liked the idea so much that he's brought the show (first produced at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut) to Broadway. It's doubtful that even Merrick has ever gotten such wildly disparate reviews: a resounding raspberry from The New York Times, hosannas from the other three New York dailies. The fate of the show (and of $3 million of Merrick's money) is easily the most interesting drama of a sluggish season.

"Oh, Kay!" deserves to live. It also deserves to be improved in certain areas. The original book, by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse, was pure jazz-age fluff. Fluff won't sustain Siretta's concept; he and adapter James Racheff founder in the quicksands of vaudevillish humor that just won't wash today. Even Groucho couldn't have gotten away with gags like: "What's a poltergeist? Any geist that polters." Helmar Augustus Cooper, a good comic actor who moves like a hip hippo, deserves better than such clinkers.

But in almost every other respect, the show has a fresh energy and easy, winning style that comes from its largely youthful cast. "Oh, Kay!" was originally written for Gertrude Lawrence, the current idea is to make this an ensemble show. But it's tough for nonstars to play star roles: Angela Teek in her Broadway debut as Kay can't fill that star space with her spunky charm. Brian Mitchell has more assurance as uptight, superrich Jimmy Winter, who's blown off his high horse by down-to-earth showgirl Kay. There's no attempt to give a strained I "black" quality to the score: Teek and Mitchell do appealing, "legit" versions of classics like "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Maybe" and "Do, Do, Do." But it's dancing that earns "Oh, Kay!" its Broadway lights. Siretta creates a sizzling brew of period and modern styles that's given explosive life by a terrific chorus and knockout soloists. Gregg Burge makes an atomic fusion of ballet and tap; Kevin Ramsey's Hineslike moves are positively sanctified, Stanley Wayne Mathis turns "Fidgety Feet" into a classic of pedal perplexity. It's dance that makes this Gershwin sing.