Fairly exploding onto the stage, The Nutty Professor-the new musical based on the classic 1963 film comedy-opened at Nashville's James K. Polk Theatre last night in a vibrantly told and visually stunning production helmed by Jerry Lewis, the man who co-wrote the movie and, at this moment, is probably booking a ticket to Broadway . The story of nerdy Professor Julius Kelp and his transformation into the suave and sophisticated (if boorish) Buddy Love offers plenty of laughs to be certain, but perhaps surprisingly, there's a whole lot of heart to be found in Rupert Holmes' book, set tunefully to a classic Marvin Hamlisch score.
With an exquisitely sumptuous physical production-with beautiful and cleverly designed sets by David Gallo; eye-poppingly gorgeous costumes by Ann Hould-Ward that ideally capture the best of early 1960s fashion; evocative and effective lighting by David Weiner; superb sound design by John Shivers and David Patridge (finally, there's a production in Nashville that doesn't suffer from shaky sound design); and Tom Watson's lovely wigs-The Nutty Professor capitalizes on the pop culture zeitgeist (the Purple Pit scenes fairly radiate a sense of 1960s style) that is exemplified by television's Mad Men and recent Broadway revivals of Promises, Promises and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
But the most noteworthy aspect of The Nutty Professor is, without danger of exaggeration, the amazing choreography of JoAnn M. Hunter, which is at once physically challenging and gracefully elegant, with a certain sensuality that is so evocative of the show's time period. Hunter intelligently focuses on the dance moves of the early '60s that give the show its palpably sexy tone. And although she puts the show's ensemble through a taxing workout in almost two-and-a-half hours, her enormously talented performers dance with an almost effortless, easy grace.
With star-making turns from the show's two leads (Michael Andrew and Marissa McGowan) and a showstopping performance from the Tony-worthy KLea Blackhurst, The Nutty Professor delivers the completely engaging and thoroughly entertaining show promised by the production's starry pedigree. It's an old-fashioned, nostalgic homage to the very best of American musical theater without seeming at all derivative or redundant.
The Nutty Professor arrives on the stage of the Tennessee Performing Arts Center fully-formed and with the air of a completed work of art (two weeks of rehearsals in Nashville-which followed initial New York City rehearsals-prior to a week of previews have apparently been put to good use). On opening night, all the gods of musical theater conspired to give the production a successful maiden voyage, christening the company with a thrilling first official performance that had the audience on its feet during curtain calls. And that opening night performance was free of any of the technical snafus that tend to plague shows in their out-of-town tryouts, despite enough theatrical wizardry to delight even the most jaded of audiences.
It is probably at this point that I should make a confession: I've never seen The Nutty Professor on film-neither the Jerry Lewis original, nor the updated Eddie Murphy version-which probably serves the purpose of this review better: I'm free of any excess baggage or memories of a much-loved film. For me, The Nutty Professor exists only as musical theater (which is how I like to live my life, thank you very much).