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Lewis’ ‘Nutty Professor’ makes a play for Broadway

Updated August 7, 2022 - 6:27 am

Jerry Lewis’ brilliant silliness often eclipsed his capacity to make you cry. But the classic, comic love story “The Nutty Professor” makes the eyes well up. It happened at Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine during the new musical’s premiere run that began last month.

“Tears came to my eyes as soon as the curtain rose, because as you know, I was with Jerry throughout the entire creating of this musical some 13 years ago,” said Sam Lewis, Jerry’s widow, after the opening-night performance on July 9. ” I witnessed all of the love, excitement and pride he poured into this, not unlike how he did with the original film, which he always considered his baby.”

Sniffles were heard from around the 90-year-old theater, from Sam and also Jerry’s daughter, Danielle. Especially so when Dan De Luca, as Julius Kelp, delivered the heart-wrenching “Stella.” It was Lewis’ favorite song in the musical, impossible not to think of him as the song soared over the audience.

Further out, the cast soared through the “Nutty” run, up until Saturday night’s closing. Elena played the Kelp/Love love interest Stella, whose role has been refreshed to emulate a sharp, young professor rather than the coed from the original film. Jeff McCarthy is the authoritative school administrator with latent entertainment dreams. His doting assistant, Miss Lemon, played by Klea Blackhurst.

The cornerstone has been established for what the Lewis camp hopes to be a “Nutty” Broadway run. Lewis wanted that during his life. “Nutty” was so much a personal endeavor for Lewis, proud that the 1963 film was named among the top 100 comedies of all time by American Film Institute.

The musical was Lewis’s final ongoing project, up to his death in 2017. The entertainment giant worked with Marvin Hamlisch, who wrote the music. Rupert Holmes, whose writing acumen is far more extensive than his top-selling “Escape (The Pina Colada Song), created the book. That team brought an early version of “Nutty” to Nashville in 2012, just before Hamlisch died.

Sam Lewis and Hamlisch’s widow, Terre Blair (along with Holmes) kept their faith in the project after both of their husbands passed. Lewis family representative Sean McClenahan has taken an indispensable leadership role in the musical, which is today directed by Marc Bruni. The reviews of the show have been uniformly laudatory.

“Fun and engaging,” from the Connecticut Critics Circle, and “warmly engaging” from the Portland (Maine) Press Herald were characteristic critiques. The movie’s anti-bullying message, and updated ’60s-style choreography from JoAnn M. Hunter (who worked danced behind Lewis in “Damn Yankees” on Broadway 30 years ago) are fresh elements. De Luca performed ably under great pressure. The young actor was nabbed just a week before the run began on July 9, a late replacement called on to perform the dual role of Professor Kelp and Buddy Love.

De Luca’s turn as the slick and smarmy Love, and endearingly awkward Kelp, was unique while still honoring Lewis’ own portrayal. But an established, A-lister is likely to be sought as the the musical moves rises from Maine. The name of Sebastian Maniscalco surfaced during the Ogunquit run (though it is not known if he wants to check the Broadway box off his career list). Such dynamic performers as Sean Hayes and Neil Patrick Harris would likely park the Kelp/Love role. Eddie Murphy starred in the film revival.

But even a musical with such a stellar pedigree, fame and upshot as “Nutty” is still not a certainty for Broadway. McClenahan is not yet ready to specify the status of investment in the show. Funding is of utmost importance, of course. It can cost up to $15 million to stage a Broadway run.

“Nutty” would also need to find a path in a limited field of Broadway theaters. There are about 40, total, that present either musicals or straight plays. Several are taken up by established, long-running productions. “Lion King,” “Phantom of The Opera,” “Chicago,” “Hamilton” and “Moulin Rouge” are among the musicals that are not going anywhere soon.

Most theaters are managed by the Shubert Organization (17 theaters), Nederlander Organization (nine) and Jujamcyn Theaters (five). Fewer than half of Broadway musicals equipped would come open within, say, the next 12 months.

And competition among new titles is manic, especially in the reshuffling of schedules in the pandemic reopening era. The timing, title, star and funding all need to line up. Veteran Broadway producer Kevin McCollum has two in development, “The Devil Wears Prada,” with music from Elton John; and “The Notebook,” with the score from folk-pop artist Ingrid Michaelson. Both are expected to have strong Broadway runs, and subsequently go on tour.

Richard Oberacker, the Las Vegas musician and composer and music director of “Ka,” has actually delivered an original musical from Las Vegas to Broadway. He and writing partner Robert Taylor created “Bandstand,” which ran for 166 performances until closing in 2017. Their success was largely in lifting the show all the way to Broadway, and winning a Tony Award for choreography. Even so, “Bandstand” fell short of recouping its $13.5 million investment.

“A lot of it is like the real-estate market. Are you all cash, do you have our money and investors in place, are you ready to go?” Oberacker says. “The landlords have these theaters, they want to make money, and they’re going to look at the product and as, ‘Am I going to make some good money off this tenant?’”

Oberacker and Taylor are going for broke once more with “Bruce,” a musical backstory of the making of “Jaws,” which ran in June at Seattle Rep’s Bagley Wright Theatre.

In this mix is Jerry Lewis’ baby, and his intangible influence over the production. On opening night, Holmes told the Lewis family, “We’re doing the best job with the greatest thing we could ever be given.”

The source material is legendary, without a doubt. With Buddy Love’s chutzpah and Julius Kelp’s ingenuity, the show has a shot. Nuttier things have happened.

Cool Hang Alert

We have one more appointment for “The Healing” at Copa Room at Bootlegger Bistro. Santa Fe & The Fat City Horns are taking an indefinite hiatus after Monday night’s show. The band is committed to outside projects, for starters. The show kicks off at 7:30 p.m. We don’t know when it will be back. When it is, we will be, too.

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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