"A GIRL waits and waits, and if she's lucky, along comes Mr. Right. And Mr. Bergdorf."
"Lucille, you kidder, you."
No one ever praised a '20s musical comedy for its intellectual sophistication. Other qualities were more important: color, sparkle, and roaring good fun usually topped the list of positive epithets. Wild costumes, fancy dance numbers, and a tune you could whistle out the lobby and into the cold were the standard elements of a whopping good time. Uncannily, that formula seems still to apply.
I counted at least six full-cast costume changes in No, No, Nanette, and there are about fifty members in the company. At one point, the men's chorus enters in art deco sweaters, knickers, and argyle socks; they carry banjos, and they sing "I Want to Be Happy." A "Tea for Two" number, set in Atlantic City, has the fifty garbed in the best and worst of flapper couture. At the finale you can hardly see the stage for the sequins.
It's a musical about young love and philandering and lots and lots of money. Although that might sound offensive in the abstract, Nanette does the impossible: it makes the ultimate thin plot simply charming. The theme of the show is being happy. When the middle-aged audience rises at the curtain call to join the company in song-"Life's really worth livin' / When you are mirth-givin'"-it's hard not to believe that these theatre patrons are participating in a long-awaited ritual of self-legitimization.
Ruby Keeler, now in her sixties, stars in the show, and the wave of applause that greets her every tap dance, her every entrance, even her bad lines, points toward that self-congratulation. If Ruby can still tap her way into the hearts of the fans-it should be recalled that Miss Keeler was the ingenue to whom Warner Baxter said in 42nd Street, "You're going out there a youngster, but you're coming back a star!"-then perhaps there's still reason to believe that there is life after thirty.
MOST of the show is really funny. Sometimes you laugh at the performers: the men's chorus looks like the Porcellian Club in drag. Sometimes you laugh at the preposterously poor numbers: in a seashore sequence, the women in the company dance on top of enormous beachballs like poodles doing a routine for the Ed Sullivan Show. Sometimes you laugh at the book: I think the line "No, no, Nanette" was spoken or sung about once every six minutes during the show.
But sometimes Nanette is amusing because it so caters to our voyeuristic impulses. A 1925 musical played in 1970 can't help revealing the bones of the genre. A lawyer struts around the stage, and his hands go first in his trouser pockets, then in his vest pockets, then on his hips. Ruby Keeler makes an entrance (the first time we see her, she is descending a long curved staircase). Every time something important is about to occur, the full chorus assembles on stage, if only to sing eight bars of "Peach on the Beach." You're overwhelmed by the force of convention which runs through the show, structuring it, and because those conventions are so distant and bizarre, it's difficult not to like them.
The idea of spending about half a million dollars to bring back a forty-five year old show is vaguely disconcerting. Broadway has been sick for a while now, and Nanette's backers probably have dollar signs painted on their teeth. But perhaps it is worth it. Perhaps the glint in a septuagenarian eye, a glint meaning, "We do have it in us," justifies the gargantuan cosmic folly of putting on an expensive, frivolous revival. If it doesn't, then Broadway is sicker than it thinks.