Another year on Broadway, another straight man in a dress. The new musical adaptation of the 1959 classic Some Like It Hot arrives with a hardworking score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, expectedly exhilarating choreography from Casey Nicholaw, and Christian Borle in a wig and a frumpy frock. For all the work that Matthew López and Amber Ruffin’s book does to mitigate something that is fundamental to the movie’s plot, it seems to completely forget about one half of its central duo. In crafting a genuinely emotional and impactful arc for Jerry/Daphne (J. Harrison Ghee) where putting on the dress leads to a discovery of self, it simultaneously turns up the spotlight on the person standing beside them–a character who has no such realization and is still only there as a joke.
The plot is too complicated to recount succinctly, but it’s important to note the way the musical diverges from the film. Joe and Jerry do not compete for Sugar Kane’s affections here–Joe is a notorious ladies’ man and is instantly attracted to her, but Jerry/Daphne is focused on performing well in the band. As Daphne bonds with the other ladies, she begins to realize that a part of her has been cracked open and she feels more herself in Daphne’s body than she ever felt as Jerry.
This invention by López and Ruffin works so well because it brings the subtext from the film out into the open and, thus, into the twenty-first century. In the film, Jerry still accepts Osgood’s proposal and they still end up together at the end, although it’s less clear what happens to them after the fade to black. Here, López and Ruffin give us the show’s one believable romance. We are thrilled for Daphne and Osgood.
Less so for Joe and Sugar, though the musical wants us to feel equally about the couples. I don’t know what to do about Joe and it feels like neither do the show’s creators. It’s not only that his wearing a grandma dress and round bug-eye glasses is reductive and harmful, it’s also just not funny. The book tries to distract from the visual joke with several zingers about Joe’s age that, I’ll admit, did make me laugh, but they’re a smokescreen. We’ve seen this before: Borle’s Josephine even looks a little like Santino Fontana’s Tootsie and the drag here is treated with more respect and dignity than it was there. It is never the point of a joke, but that doesn’t make the joke invisible.
Especially when he’s standing next to Daphne. Especially when Daphne, in a joyous explosion of a number, tells Joe about her awakening. “You Coulda Knocked Me Over With a Feather” belongs with the best of Shaiman and Wittman’s songbook, a sister to “They Just Keep Moving the Line” from Smash. Ghee delivers it to Borle with an overwhelming wave of relief and comfort, knowledge and elation. It completely explains the character we’ve seen for the previous two hours and carries her forward for the rest of the show. And then it’s followed immediately by Joe’s “He Lied When He Said Hello” in which he realizes…he’s a liar? The two things are not equal.
All Joe wants is to sleep with Sugar and I guess they fall in love, but Borle and Adrianna Hicks don’t have chemistry and Sugar doesn’t know anything about Joe. He’s lied to her for the entire show, creating two false personas along the way, and his apology doesn’t really do the trick, as bare and honest as Borle tries to play the moment. We also don’t really know Sugar. The show thinks it’s giving her dimension by telling us she liked to go to the movies to escape when she was little, but it’s not enough. Hicks is trying her damndest to give Sugar some life, but like Marilyn Monroe before her, the engine of Some Like It Hot doesn’t have time for her. She’s, unfortunately, there to sing and be pretty.
The show does have its charms, though. The art deco set by Scott Pask is glitzy and gorgeous. The score kicks off with a trio of fantastic songs: “What Are You Thirsty For?” performed with warmth and welcome by NaTasha Yvette Williams, “You Can’t Have Me (If You Don’t Have Him)” a Kelly/O’Connor pastiche that slyly delivers exposition, and “Vamp!” that dramatizes the initial transformation into Josephine and Daphne. Nicholaw’s choreography is energetic and keeps the numbers animated. He even finds a way to reinvent the kick line in the titular number and I wish I could watch that bit on a loop.
The highlight of the show, though, may surprise you: it’s Kevin Del Aguila as Osgood Fielding III. From his introductory number towards the end of the first act, Del Aguila creates a character that is hysterically funny and full of sadness. Osgood has everything money can buy, but he’s lonely beyond measure. Del Aguila captures both things at once. When his first song ended, I felt like I knew more about Osgood than any other character in the show. And it keeps coming: not a moment of his stage time is wasted. Del Aguila is always giving us new information about Osgood in his reactions, in his physicality, in his hollow smile that eventually becomes a full-face grin. He takes what could easily be a throwaway part and turns it into something of Shakespearean depth. If there is any reason to see Some Like It Hot, it’s for that performance.