Theater Review: ‘Sugar’ is an Artificial Sweetener

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CHICAGO – Few but the most professorial of Broadway aficionados recall with clarity the short-lived “Sugar,” which is one of the first film-to-stage transfers that premiered on the Great White Way in 1972 to lowly acclaim and even lower financial prowess. Though serving as a harbinger for the soon-to-be endowed trend of film derivatives, “Sugar” debuted in the throws of an era thirsty for the provocation of Michael Bennett and the insight of Stephen Sondheim. Comedy/Tragedy Rating: 2.5/5.0
Play Rating: 2.5/5.0

More so, however, “Sugar” never seemed to quite crack the sweet recipe that buoyed its farcical siblings (“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” was a big winner the year of “Sugar’s” debut).

”Sugar” at Drury Lane Oakbrook” target=
”Sugar” at Drury Lane Oakbrook
Photo credit: Brett Beiner

Which is surprising considering the seemingly peerless components that comprise the work. For one, the musical boasts a score by the songwriting team of Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, a duo responsible for the likes of “Gypsy” and “Funny Girl”. Not to mention it is based on the 1959 Billy Wilder film, “Some Like It Hot”, a now iconic piece of silver film roll with the stamps of the equally legendary Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe. The voluptuous actress played Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, a bombshell character known for her testosterone-loyal magnetism.

But there is rarely an absence of reasoning when it comes to Broadway’s most notorious flops, and “Sugar” is no exception. Peter Stone’s book delivers on several cynically charged zingers, but is mostly unable to vivify all of those gender-bending gags, a now easily exhaustible bit of gimmickry in the 21st Century. Styne’s score packs on the staple buoyancy but omits the heart and witticism accredited with distinguishing his musical voice. Early in the production, yacht captain Osgood Fielding sings of his love for one of the disguised men (whom he believes to be a voluptuous broad), gleaming “Naughty old men need naughty young girls.”

“Don’t Rain On My Parade”, this ain’t.

For the most part, writer-choreographer Jim Corti’s recent remount of the piece at Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace manages to keep the caper afloat despite the barefaced foozles. After all, the original film capitalized on the as of yet inexhaustible gag of male-to-female cross-dressing and mistaken identity. Few script foibles can sour the stage image of a pair of hirsute legs in some platinum pumps. And leading men Rod Thomas and Alan Schmuckler are all too happy to slip in.

Rod Thomas and Jennifer Knox in
Rod Thomas and Jennifer Knox in “Sugar”
Photo credit: Brett Beiner

Thomas and Schmuckler play Joe and Jerry respectively, two down-on-their-luck musicians who inadvertently witness the Valentine’s Day Massacre. In a raucous effort to evade the machine gun-wielding mobsters hot to erase their memories, the two men disguise themselves as dames and join the ranks of Sweet Sue’s Society Syncopates, an all-female big band traveling the coasts. Burlesque and buffoonery, in equal parts, ensue.

The golden-voiced Thomas is slick and emotionally endearing as the conniving Joe. Schmuckler renders a wholly adroit comedic turn as Jerry and the drag Daphne, delving masterly between physical romp and deadpan neurosis. Schmuckler is a remarkable talent here, wielding proficiency in both his reverence to the film and fearlessness to explore the yet untapped possibilities for gambol.

StarMore theater reviews from critic Alissa Norby.
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However, it is Jennifer Knox, in the libidinous title role, who deftly manages to eschew the shackles of Monroe’s amatory offering. Despite being embedded in an invasive and acrostic-ridden design conceit (Corti has placed the entire story in the context of a Hollywood soundstage, complete with sweating spotlights and omnipresent grips that confine the physicality and consequently, creativity of the numbers), Knox manages to proffer the sort of emotional pull that her director clearly desires to substitute with frothy vagary. Knox’s is an unfeigned authenticity, a heartiness that not only runs circles around Monroe, but adds the oomph to the show’s 11 o’clock number, “The People in My Life.”

“Sugar” may inarguably lack the requisite rotundity and wit that has lifted the great musical comedies of our time to super stardom. But with Schmuckler and Knox in the boat, there’s still a sweet time to be had.

“Sugar” runs through August 1, 2010 at the Drury Lane Oakbrook, 100 Drury Lane in Oakbrook Terrace, IL.. To purchase tickets or for more information please visit here. For half-price Chicago theater tickets, visit our partner Goldstar. staff writer Alissa Norby

Staff Writer

© 2010 Alissa Norby,

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