They've gone to an inordinate amount of trouble in "My One and Only," which opened last night at the St. James, to dress up a batch of old Gershwin tunes and string them together with a half-hearted story line in the hope of arriving at "a new Gershwin musical." If it weren't for some spirited hoofing, we might just as well have done with a staged concert of the songs interpreted by some first-class vocalists, which we certainly don't have here.
The show seems to have emerged by a painful process from the 1927 Gershwin musical comedy "Funny Face" starring Fred and Adele Astaire, who unhappily aren't present this time around. At any rate, five of the original "Funny Face" songs are employed, along with numbers from several other Gershwin shows and movies.
The result is a hodgepodge with a new book, set in 1927 and involving the romance between an adventurous aviator, a kind of Unlucky Lindy, and an English Channel swimmer. If this book, the product of Peter Stone and Timothy S. Mayer, was a conscious attempt to recapture the silliness of musical-comedy books of the period, they've certainly succeeded. The original is said to have been pretty impossible (it was the Gershwin songs that carried the evening), but it couldn't have been more foolish than this one.
Twiggy, who has filled out becomingly over the years, is charming and acts with attractive British aplomb. Tune is - well, lanky as you surely know, and engaging, and can sing a bit and hoof expertly.
But when it comes to hoofing, nobody onstage is in a class with the veteran Charles (Honi) Coles, whose rare ability is used only once, and then in a demonstration number in which he has Tune by his side. I daresay that, if left alone on the stage, as he had every right to be, Coles' natural skill and, above all, his elegance would have outshone everything around him.
So, forgetting the dopey and unfunny book, which travels from Manhattan to Staten Island to Morocco and possibly elsewhere without moving an inch, what have we left? "'S Wonderful," the biggest "Funny Face" hit, serves for a playful song and dane number by Twiggy and Tune on a beach with a little pool of water before it in which the two can execute a splash dance. And the entrancing "He Loves and She Loves" is put to pleasant use. In fact, almost all the dance numbers, choreographed by Tune and Thommie Walsh (with the notable exception of Coles' inimitable foot vocabulary), can be called playful until, next to closing, the dancing chorus (we might as well call the girls chorus cuties, using 1927 terminology, because that's what they surely are, especially an unidentified redhead with comic flair) erupts in "Kickin' the Clouds Away," an almost totally forgotten Gershwin number with lyrics by both brother Ira and Buddy DeSylva. The arch white chorines and the fleet black male dancers (especially another unidentified, but remarkable, dancer - a short chap with glasses) momentarily lift the evening out of the doldrums that afflict it whenever the book, or even some of the new musical arrangements, get in the way. Ironically - but characteristically, I'm afraid - the Gershwins' sardonic anti-war march "Strike Up the Band" is used, with somewhat revised words, for both a first-act and second-act finale, the latter with a quartet of flag-waving officers, no less.
A word of praise for the feisty female comic, Denny Dillon, and the heavy, Bruce McGill, in their winningly sung "Funny Face." Roscoe Lee Browne's considerable acting talents are wasted in the role of a Harlem minister who runs a speakeasy by night. A white male quartet (probably an echo of the Yacht Club Boys) and a black one juice up some of the musical numbers.
The overall direction by the team of Tune and Walsh (with a little help from their friends) is adequate. But the settings, though many, are mostly tacky and unoriginal, except for one or two effectively flashy touches. Same goes for the lighting. Of most help are the costumes, most of them in a wide and wild variety of styles.
There are good moments in "My One and Only," but they're really due to Gershwin's music (oddly, Ira's lyrics often sound rather ordinary and repetitive today, though this latter complaint may be due to the borrowing of songs from so many different sources). In most respects, the show has been so ineptly put together that most of the professionalism on hand is wasted.
Imagine a 6-foot-6 Fred Astaire and a wispily, wistfully skinny Adele Astaire - not that I ever saw Adele Astaire - and I suspect you would have Tommy Tune and Twiggy in My One and Only.
George Gershwin's new musical, which opened last night at the St. James Theater, deserves to be the surprise hit of the season. George Gershwin? The big and ironic surprise is that Gershwin is scarcely writing new musicals these days.
Do not let us delay ourselves too much on its genesis. It was, it seems, originally intended as a revival of the George and Ira Gershwin musical, Funny Face, which did indeed star the Astaires way back in 1927.
The present intended revival flopped in some place such as Boston - although come to think of it there is conceivably only one Boston - and the producers went back to the drawing board, brought in Peter Stone and Timothy S. Mayer to provide a completely new book, introduced Gershwin songs from some of their other musicals, so voila - a new Gershwin musical.
Then the producers had to leave the rest to hope, charity, and their new directors, Tune himself and Thommie Walsh who, as they say, staged and directed the entire show.
Rumor, and I think even report, has it, that they had a little help from their friends, such as Mike Nichols and Michael Bennett.
But when the chips are down and the curtain up, a Broadway show is scarcely a corporate company decision, and from tip to tapping toe this show has all the mark of a cheerfully melodious Tune about it.
Nowadays Tune is so innovative in the musical that he is beginning to develop his own cliches. But, kidding apart, this is just a lovely show.
The book staggers around a bit - yet it is very witty and agreeably savvy and sassy.
Why, of course, it staggers once in a while because it has had to be written around the songs. But the authors have clearly found a lot of fun in this, and it is a fun we share in.
The story is about a young aviator who falls in love with an aquacade star. The aquacade star - should one say "Miss Twiggy" to a lady without a first name? - has already swum the English Channel, and the aviator, the aforesaid Tune, is hoping to beat Lindberg in flying the Atlantic. Apparently he does, but therein lies their love story. He never makes a claim for distinction, only for love.
There are flaws. It is very obviously a show that has been manufactured rather than created - if you see what I mean. But I found it totally delightful. Or, as Ira Gershwin would put it: S'Wonderful.
First you have the Gershwin music and his brother's unbelievably deft lyrics. Surely only Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim, or maybe Hart and Lerner, have written Broadway lyrics of this dexterity?
Then you have a production of audacious camp. It is rewardingly outrageous. It piles outrage on outrage, camp upon follower, until its final, flamboyant, curtain call finale.
Let us not forget in all this the finely original sets by Adrianne Lobel (even if she did steal her finale from Balanchine's Stars and Stripes), the costumes by Rita Ryack, (who stole from nothing but glitter and glintz), and the light by Marcia Madeira.
Yet possibly the bottom line is Tune, himself, and Twiggy. They are terrific. Tune dances, Tune sings, Tune charms. We all knew that. But Twiggy is a revelation.
She was an English model, and I knew she was a strange kind of celebrity, in the way of those things, but I hadn't watched her career with any interest, and certainly didn't know she had any talent. But the lady's not just a dish, she's delicious. She's sexy.
She sings in a weird Cockney accent, you can almost hear her count when she tap-dances, and the woman's a genuine star.
The rest of the cast is also admirable, Roscoe Lee Brown is splendid as a Harlem preacher who doubles as a speakeasy owner (it is, of course, but of course, the '20s, by the way) and Honi Coles, nowadays the smoothest tap dancer of them all, is excessively suave to success - nothing equals it - as the barber adviser who tells Tune how to get his swimming lady away from the villainous Nicky, played with charming villiany by Bruce McGill.
And Denny Dillon is spunkily attractive as a distraught girl mechanic in love with both her plane and aviator.
But - eventually - what this show has is style, Twiggy, Tune, a wittily imaginative book, and, let's not forget, those Gershwins. It is amply enough.
Capt. Billy Buck Chandler (Tommy Tune), the derring-do 1920's hero of the musical ''My One and Only,'' dreams of being ''the first man in history to fly nonstop to Paris.'' It's giving away nothing to say that Billy at last takes flight in Act II, and, as he does, so does the entertainment that contains him. The second half of the handsome show at the St. James levitates with some of the most inspired choreography Broadway has seen in several seasons - all set to the celestial music of George Gershwin and danced to kill by a company glittering in Art Deco swank.
Until then, ''My One and Only'' is a smart and happy, if less than electrifying, spin down memory lane. Yet even at its most innocuous, this show receives a considerable boost from its Gershwin songs: the entire score, stitched together by a pastiche period book, derives from the Broadway trove created by the composer and his brother, Ira, a half-century ago. When Mr. Tune and his adorable leading lady, Twiggy, glide about in moonlight to ''He Loves and She Loves'' and '''S Wonderful,'' they may not make you forget Fred Astaire partnering Audrey Hepburn to the same standards in the film ''Funny Face.'' But the Gershwin tunes and lyrics are so potent you'll be transported all the same.
As has been widely publicized, the Gershwins are perhaps the only authors whose contributions to ''My One and Only'' are completely identifiable. During this production's troubled gestation period, seemingly half of show business pitched in to offer anonymous help - no doubt the half that wasn't toiling on the screenplay of ''Tootsie.'' The result of the effort is not the brilliant musical the theater desperately craves, but nonetheless a slick one, brimming with high-hat confidence.
''My One and Only'' even has a coherent - and delightful - style. From its bright, cartoonish sets in shiny David Hockneyesque primary colors to the relaxed, debonair gait of the direction and choreography by Mr. Tune and Thommie Walsh, this musical achieves an airy, easygoing charm that runs happily counter to Broadway's current aggressive fashion. However much sweat went into ''My One and Only,'' the show doesn't feel like work.
Though the songs are familiar, the approach is often clever. In the opening number, ''I Can't Be Bothered Now,'' the directors' cockeyed slant is established by a trio of tuxedo-clad scat singers who deliver the song with mischievous insouciance. ''Sweet and Low-Down,'' soon to follow, is a black-tie-and-tails strut, in which the white canes and gloves glow in phosphorescent light. When '''S Wonderful'' is danced by the stars on a deserted beach, the couple enter a pool of water to splash on beat.
At no time is the classic music compromised by contemporary tampering - even when ''Funny Face'' is sung by the show's most clownish performers, the able Denny Dillon and Bruce McGill, seated on the floor. The orchestrations (by Michael Gibson) and the dance arrangements (by Wally Harper, Peter Larson and Peter Howard) are ever so delicately jazzed-up rethinkings of the past. The voices, while not sterling, are firm. Mr. Tune brings a forceful belt to ''Strike Up the Band,'' which he delivers as a vehement, slow-tempo anthem in the manner of the early Barbra Streisand's ''Happy Days Are Here Again.'' Twiggy has an odd catch in her throat that summons the bygone vocal idiom of the 20's.
Most of what Twiggy does is fetchingly odd. Not quite an accomplished actress, singer or dancer and not quite beautiful, she has a striking, slinky presence and vulnerable, little-lost-flapper look that is instantly winning. Cast as an Englishwoman famous for swimming the English Channel, she gets to appear in some smashing black-and-silver bathing costumes (exquisitely designed by Rita Ryack) with shimmering helmets to match. But whatever she's wearing, it's her plaintive, intimate renditions of ''Boy Wanted'' and ''Nice Work If You Can Get It'' that give ''My One and Only'' its essential warmth.
Mr. Tune - a far more polished performer and a fantastic dancer - could learn from his co-star. If she holds back, he is much too eager to please: from his first entrance, he is making cute faces at us, asking for applause, and while his feet ultimately earn that approbation, his relentless aw-shucks pose is more obsequious than ingratiating. This excessive narcissism contributes to one of the show's failings, which is the lack of any credible sexual or romantic passion to spark the ostensible love story.
The other failing - minimized by the snappy staging, with its distracting parade of white umbrellas and steaming locomotives - is the book by Peter Stone and Timothy S. Mayer. It's a professional but mechanical retelling of the boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-finds-girl plots of the Astaire-Rodgers movies. The jokes, except for a silentfilm parody set in Morocco, are either forced or propped up by fourletter words. The message -celebrity isn't everything - is repeated once too often and presumably holds deeper meaning for the authors than for the audience.
Because the lines and love scenes don't dazzle, it's up to the dancing to push ''My One and Only'' beyond pleasant whimsy and unvarnished camp into excitement. The first jolt of true lightning occurs shortly after intermission, when the dapper and immortal Charles (Honi) Coles, as the hero's fairy godfather, teaches the towering Mr. Tune a lesson about wooing by teaching him how to tap to the title song. An understated exercise in precise terpsichorean pointillism, this show-stopper by two master hoofers is a rare reminder of how less can be more in a big musical.
The grandest prize to follow, ''Kickin' the Clouds Away,'' is an extravagant ensemble piece set at a Harlem chapel, whose quack reverend is played by a bemused Roscoe Lee Browne. Again the mode is tap, but instead of the Busby Berkeley drill one expects, the choreographers create a disjointed, centrifugal whirlwind of movement that sends individual dancers twirling into separate, idiosyncratic variations on the overall 20's pattern. On a Broadway rife with vintage shows, here is one demonstration of how the clouds really can be kicked away - of how valuable old songs can be liberated from musty staging cliches. Though ''My One and Only'' isn't always so fresh or buoyant, it's the only new or old musical of the season that sends us home on air.