In 1924, a new musical opened in New York. “Lady, Be Good!” by George and Ira Gershwin was a smash hit, one that brought the Jazz Age to Broadway in a big way.
Today, it isn’t performed as often as other Gershwin works, but director Chris Smith still considers it one of the masterpieces of American musical theater.
“It’s a fantastic piece,” says Smith, who’s directing the musical for The City’s own 42nd Street Moon in a production starting previews Wednesday and opening Saturday at the Eureka Theatre.
“This is the show that cemented the partnership of George and Ira Gershwin. The songs, the wit, the boldness in the way they bounce off one another is intoxicating,” he says.
The 1924 production, Smith says, starred Fred and Adele Astaire as a down-on-their-luck brother and sister act who bluff their way into Long Island, N.Y., high society. With songs such as “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Little Jazz Bird,” the show ran for more than a year in New York.
It was presented by 42nd Street Moon once before, in a 1996 concert version, but now Smith is giving it a full staging, with Dave Dobrusky as musical director and Zack Wilde as choreographer.
Ian Simpson and Rena Wilson star as Dick and Susie Trevor, the roles originated by the Astaires. The production launches a new 42nd Street Moon series celebrating Ira Gershwin, the lyricist of the great songwriting team.
Smith, who was artistic director of the Magic Theatre from 2003-08, says he’s having a blast.
“As someone who’s loved musicals for a long time, I appreciate not just the great score but the fabulous lyrics,” he says. “I predominantly work on new plays, so it’s a real pleasure to be able to delve into such a classic.”
Like many musicals of the era, “Lady, Be Good!” was built around the skills of its stars — which, in the case of the Astaires, were prolific.
“Essentially, it’s a series of vaudeville specialty acts thrown together with a witty, effervescent script,” Smith says. “We’re trying to do justice to the show-stopping quality of each scene, so you’ll see tap numbers, Charleston, a whole series of comic moments. It’s a delicious assembly of components.”
Smith is making one revision to the original. With the permission of the Gershwin estate, he’s moving the show from its East Coast locale to settings in San Francisco and Napa Valley. It works like a charm, he says.
“Here’s a musical born in the Roaring ’20s, when there’s excess and ebullience and creativity abounding,” Smith says. “But on the horizons are some storm clouds. The show begins with this brother and sister being tossed out on the street because they can’t pay their rent.
“We’re in a moment in time when we’ve gone through that same kind of bubble, and the humor around that has a lot of resonance today. The tweaks to the script and lyrics are very modest. But I think for our audiences, the impact will be tremendous.”
IF YOU GO
Lady, Be Good!
Presented by 42nd Street Moon
Where: Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 6 p.m. Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays; 1 p.m. April 10; closes April 18
Tickets: $38 to $44
Contact: (415) 255-8207, www.42ndstmoon.org