Besides being glorious, giddy tap-dancing fun, George and Ira Gershwin’s 1930s-era “Crazy for You” contains a subtle message about pulling together as a community that Amy Baker Schwiethale thinks is particularly relevant to America’s polarized present.
“The show is about the pursuit of happiness against all odds,” said Schwiethale, assistant theater professor at Wichita State University who is director-choreographer for the musical that opens Thursday.
“But it’s also about a town putting aside their differences to get something done. That’s a huge message in these polarizing times for our city, our state and our country. As a cast, we’ve discovered that first-hand by pulling together to put on a show,” Schwiethale said. “It literally does take a village.”
“Crazy for You” is a revamped version by playwright Ken Ludwig of the Gershwins’ 1930 “Girl Crazy” that made stars of Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers. Ludwig kept classics including “I Got Rhythm” and “Embraceable You” but beefed it up with Gershwin songs from other vintage musicals like “A Damsel in Distress” (“Nice Work If You Can Get It”) and “Shall We Dance” (“They Can’t Take That Away from Me”).
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The result became an all-singing, all-dancing, all-Gershwin extravaganza that not only won the 1992 best musical Tony on Broadway, it won best musical in London in 1993 and best revival of a musical in 2011.
For Schwiethale, now in her fifth year at WSU, the show created the perfect challenge for her students and herself.
“I wanted to do the show because, after five years, we had established a strong dance foundation in our theater,” Schwiethale said. “A show like ‘Crazy for You’ challenges you as a performer and pushes you out of your comfort zone into the next level of professionalism. Our purpose is to get our kids ready for real-world experiences. They are showing that they will be ready.”
The story revolves around a 1930s New York City rich kid named Bobby who, despite his mother’s insistence that he go into the family banking business, wants to be a dancer. When Mom coerces him into traveling to a small Nevada town on banking business to foreclose on a failing theater, he falls in love with Polly, the daughter of the owner, and makes plans to put on a show to save the theater.
But skeptical, strong-willed Polly wonders if Bobby’s attentions are all some sort of cruel joke to humiliate her father and her before pulling the rug out from under them.
What follows is a romantic mix of plot twists, mistaken identities, Eastern showgirls dancing up a storm with Western cowboys and a couple of British tourists trying to make sense of it all.
“Bobby is a playboy who is really ambitious but also a little spoiled,” said Joe Consiglio, a senior theater major from Wichita who plays the role. “He’s always been used to getting his way, so Polly presents him with a challenge. He’s never had anybody say ‘no’ to him before in his love life.”
Consiglio said what he likes most about his character is that he knows what his dream is — to dance — and he doesn’t give up in trying to help Polly, even when he has to go undercover to fool her for her own good.
“If he has a weakness, it’s that he wears his heart on his sleeve because he’s never had to work for something before. That’s challenging for me personally because I am not so open with my emotions,” said Consiglio, who will be in the Crown Uptown Theatre’s upcoming “Little Women.” He also danced the Prince in Ballet Wichita’s “The Nutcracker.”
“Where Bobby and I really come together is through dance. I like that he wants to dance more than anything. I understand that because dance is a big part of my life. In real life, we would probably hang out, but we wouldn’t be best friends. He’d probably be a big competitor for me,” Consiglio said with a laugh.
Playing Polly is Janet Wiggins, another senior theater major from Wichita. She appeared in Crown Uptown’s “White Christmas” for the past two years and will be in its “Hairspray” this summer.
“Polly is a very strong lady because she’s the only woman in town. She grew up with men and can hold her own with them. Actually, she sometimes holds her own a little too well because she tends to let her emotions out forcefully. I wouldn’t say she is bossy, but she is opinionated,” Wiggins said.
“There’s so much of me that’s like Polly. I don’t think I’ve played a role so similar to me before. She’s a woman, but she’s not comfortable letting her sensitive side show. I can relate to that,” Wiggins said.
The actress said her favorite moment in the show is the finale to Act I, which is a huge dance number to “I Got Rhythm.”
“There’s so much going on. First, I get to sing that great Gershwin song. But it becomes such a spectacle. It really builds as the group comes together,” she said. “I have some moments when I can sit and watch others in that number. I get a chance to see the dancing from the audience perspective – except from behind. It’s really exciting.”
Others in the cast are Liz Jarmer as Lottie, Bobby’s business-minded mother; Emily Monrad as Irene, Bobby’s snooty New York fiancee; and Josh Brown as Bela Zangler, flamboyant showman behind New York’s Zangler Follies.
In Polly’s small Nevada town are Bailey Burcham as Everett, her financially pressed father; Aaron Craven as Lank, scheming owner of the local saloon who wants to take over the failed theater; Michael Allen and Joella Wolnik as two British tourists writing about their adventures in the American Wild West; and Max Wilson, Eric Stephens and Brandon Smith as three cowboys who harmonize like some bow-legged Greek Chorus.
Musical director for the show is Tom Wine, who will conduct a 20-piece orchestra.