BY ALEXANDRA WILLIAMSON
BROOKLYN HEIGHTS– Most of what people do is in pursuit of love or money, and either one can drive a person insane. No doubt both forces are at the heart of “Crazy for You,” Ken Ludwig’s Tony Award-winning Broadway musical featuring music by the Gershwin brothers, now under revival by Brooklyn Heights-based community theater group the Heights Players. The show opened May 3 at the John Bourne Theater and is the final production for the Players’ 63rd season.
Based largely on the 1930 Gershwin musical “Girl Crazy,” the show was dubbed “The New Gershwin Musical Comedy” when it debuted on Broadway to popular and critical acclaim in 1992. It’s packed from start to finish with jazz standards by George and Ira Gershwin, including “I Got Rhythm,” “Embraceable You” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”
Director James Martinelli, who started with the Heights Players as a chorus dancer about 10 years ago, says he’s been a Gershwin super-fan since his teenage years, when he first heard their music performed at a Michael Feinstein concert in the early ‘80s.
“He opened the door, I walked in and it was just love from then on out with the Gershwins,” Martinelli recalled. “So, when they offered me this show I said, ‘Oh my god, it’s Gershwin!’ How could I say no?”
“Crazy for You” is set in the ‘30s and tells the story of Bobby Child, played here by returning Heights Player Joe Bliss. Bobby is the young heir of a wealthy New York banking family. His mother Lottie, played by Meg Dooley, expects him to go into the family business, but Bobby has dreams of becoming an actor instead.
When Lottie sends him to Deadrock, Nevada to foreclose on a floundering theater, Bobby derails everyone’s plans by falling hard for the theater owner’s daughter, Polly Baker. Hijinks ensue as he hatches a half-baked plan to defy his mother’s wishes, save the struggling theater and win over the girl of his dreams.
It’s an ambitious production for a small, self-sustaining community theater, requiring revolving scenery, live music from a jazz trio, a troupe of highly skilled tap dancers, numerous costume changes and a deep bench of talent, both onstage and off. Despite the production’s demands, Dooley says the live shows are off to a good start.
“We’ve had three audiences that laughed from start to finish, and it was so energizing and inspiring to the cast,” she said. “As they say, we added the final character to the show when we had our first audience Friday, and the final member of the cast is as wonderful as everyone else.”
The Heights Players are unique in the world of community theater, in that they’ve been operating continuously since 1956, making them the longest-running community group in Brooklyn. The Players put on nine shows a season, an enormous number for a nonprofit theater, and put each show together, from auditions to opening night, in about two months.
Despite constraints on money and time, the group maintains a sterling reputation for quality and draws a mix of both amateur and professional performers to their ranks. Heights Players alumni include Alan Arkin, Ellen Greene and Richard Mulligan. According to Martinelli, backstage lore has it that Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller were once in the audience.
“People think that community theater is a bad word,” said Martinelli. “It has nothing to do with level. It just means it’s very grounded in Brooklyn and that makes the community proud. I live in Brooklyn Heights and I’m proud to say we have a great theater company here.”
Dooley travels from Washington Heights to rehearsals and performances, a trip which takes her at least an hour each way. She’s been working with the Heights Players since 2014 when she was cast in Neil Simon’s “Broadway Bound.” Lottie Childis her fifth role with the group.
Like the rest of the cast and crew, Dooley works with the Players on a volunteer basis, and holds down a rather demanding fulltime job as a VP of fundraising at Memorial Sloan-Kettering when she isn’t performing.
According to Martinelli, who also works as a fitness instructor, that kind of hectic schedule is typical for the cast and crew.
“You put in a hard day’s work, then when you’re out of work, you come right to rehearsal. You bring a sandwich, you bring some soup. Three cups of coffee and you rehearse. That’s the commitment and that’s the life!” he said.
It seems that, like Bobby Child in “Crazy for You,” members of the Heights Players are ultimately driven by love rather thanmoney to do what they do.
“Crazy for You” runs Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through May 19 at the John Bourne Theater at 26 Willow Place. For tickets and info, visit heightsplayers.org.