A new wave of musicals inspired by beloved movies is flooding Broadway this season. In addition to 2021 Tony winner “Moulin Rouge!,” you can see newcomers “Almost Famous,” “Back to the Future,” and “Life of Pi.” Opening this week at the Shubert Theatre is “Some Like it Hot,” based on the Billy Wilder classic MGM romp famously starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, and Jack Lemon.
Although anointed “The Funniest American Movie of All Time” by the American Film Institute, many had concerns about bringing such a dated tale to the stage. After all, the 1959 caper revolves around the trope of men dressing as women for laughs, which is sorely out of step with today’s more gender-expansive ethos. Nowadays, one person’s cross dressing is another’s sexual appropriation. Also problematic was the utter lack of racial diversity in the cast, and the stale stereotype of a woman relying on marrying a man to be happy.
Two recent cross-dressing Broadway tuners lifted from movies, “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Tootsie,” failed to strike the right note and did not last. How could the creators possibly succeed in retooling “Some Like It Hot” to reflect current sensibilities?
Miraculously, they found a way. The biggest shift was revamping the role of Jerry/Daphne and casting the luminous J. Harrison Ghee (Lola in “Kinky Boots”), a non-binary person of color. Instead of playing a clown in a dress, this Jerry views the charade as a kind of emancipation, allowing him to explore his gender identity.
Not that book writers Matthew Lopez (“The Inheritance”) and Amber Ruffin stray too far from the basic outline. Set in prohibition-era Chicago, the comedy finds bass player Jerry and saxophonist Joe, embodied with flair by Christian Borle, accidentally witness a mob massacre, and need to skip town, pronto. So they don wigs and frocks and join an all-female band headed by train to San Diego (Miami in the movie).
Joe, aka Josephine, is smitten by the band’s vocalist named Sugar Kane, the Marilyn Monroe character, and assumes the guise of a flashy Hollywood screenwriter from Austria, Kiplinger Von Der Plotz (cue goofy Germanic accent), to woo her. Jerry is doggedly chased by Osgood Fielding III (a spirited Kevin Del Aguila), a frisky, marriage-minded millionaire. The longtime pals get tangled in their web of deceit as the madcap plot spirals out of control and reaches its fairytale, foregone conclusion.
“The world reacts to what it sees, and in my experience, the world doesn’t have very good eyesight,” an enlightened Osgood says about people’s tunnel-visioned, binary way of thinking.
Unlike the movie, the cast includes several fine actors of color. In addition to Ghee, there’s the mind-blowing Adrianna Hicks (“Six”), whose performance as Sugar is sheer genius and had the audience cheering. Her turn will have you thinking: “Marilyn who?” Also knocking it out of the park is NaTasha Yvette Williams as Sweet Sue, the tetchy bandleader and ersatz mother-hen figure, whose role has been nicely fleshed out here.
One of the most affecting numbers has Sugar reminiscing about visits to her local movie palace as a young girl in Georgia. She laments that “Those who looked like me could only use the balcony” and “Someone else’s world was up there on display.” The oldfangled songs from the movie, like “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” have been wisely jettisoned. If Sugar longs to run away to Hollywood with Kip, it’s more because she wants to pursue a movie career than snag a husband.
“Some Like It Hot” is the type of big, brash musical comedy folks say they don’t make ’em like anymore. The production boasts an immense cast, lush orchestra, and elaborate musical numbers choreographed by the gifted Casey Nicholaw, who also directs. The dazzling costumes — many beaded, glittering gowns — are courtesy of Gregg Barnes. There’s plenty of tap dancing in the tradition of classics like “42nd Street,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and “Anything Goes.”
The lavish art deco scenic design is by Scott Pask, veteran of over 50 Broadway shows. The jazzy, bluesy score is by the duo behind “Hairspray” and “Smash,” Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The song you’ll be humming leaving the theater is the rollicking titular number, infused with jazz riffs and foot-tapping beats that get the joint jumpin’.
“The world’s a candy store so let your tootsie roll,” croon Sweet Sue and Daphne, with a wink and a smile.
And yep, there’s an extended wacky chase scene in the San Diego hotel, involving the gangsters, Joe and Jerry, bellhops, and nearly everybody else, replete with door-slamming, disguises, and pratfalls.
For some, the humor in this juggernaut of fizzy musical entertainment may be too broad, the musical numbers too quaint, and the “freedom for all” theme too didactic. This film-to-stage transfer generates heat for sure, but it lacks bite. To echo the film’s iconic closing line, which is repurposed near the show’s climax, “Nobody’s perfect.”
Some Like It Hot | Shubert Theatre | 225 W. 44th St. | $74-$278 | somelikeithotmusical.com | 2 hrs, 30 mins with intermission