Some musicals are born small. Some achieve smallness. And some have smallness thrust upon them.
The third category is the operative one in the case of Signature Theatre’s revival of “Crazy for You,” the razzmatazzy 1992 remake of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy.” Something in the vintage id of this show, with its revamped book by playwright Ken Ludwig, cries out for a big stage in a grand old barn of a playhouse — the kind of backdrop that would suit best the bevy of chorines, gaggle of tap dancers and gallery of stock characters that affectionately send up the let’s-put-on-a-show musicals of yore.
Signature’s production, directed by whiz-bang in-house star Matthew Gardiner, offers up some heady demonstrations of tap, courtesy of choreographer Denis Jones, and there’s even one heavenly number in which the ensemble wittily takes up washboards, saws, hooch jugs and emery boards to keep the beat.
But “Crazy for You,” which ran for 1,622 performances in Broadway’s Shubert Theatre from 1992 to 1996, comes across as cloyingly artificial in the cozy confines of Signature’s Max Theatre. Allowing an audience to breathe down the necks of the performers feels as if it’s the wrong perspective. Up close, the frozen smiles of the chorus boys and girls and the outsize silliness and brassiness of the leading players drain the proceedings of some of the happy magic that happens in the land of make-believe. You’re given too much opportunity on this occasion to examine plastic emotions under a microscope.
And under such scrutiny, you’re never thoroughly transported, even if many of the technical aspects of the evening are first-rate. The leading man, Danny Gardner, knows his way around a suave soft-shoe, and Ashley Spencer, as a pioneer gal who falls for a city boy, invests the signature Gershwin numbers “But Not for Me” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” with a creamy elegance. (But wait a darn minute! This confident woman needs someone to watch over her? I’m glad that having to explain that antique lyric to an inquiring youngster in 2017 is your responsibility and not mine!)
Ludwig’s taut book honors all the conventions of the era of madcap musical comedy, when Manhattan playboys in dinner jackets could descend on a dry gulch of a burg like Deadrock, where there just happens to sit one of those grand old playhouses, ready to be shaken out of its doldrums by a rousing chorus of “I Got Rhythm.” “Crazy for You” adds to the original “Girl Crazy” score other memorable Gershwin tunes, here enabled warmly by conductor Jon Kalbfleisch and a strong, 14-member orchestra.
Bobby Smith is on hand to play Old World producer Bela Zangler, who’s impersonated for a spell (don’t ask) by Gardner’s Bobby Child, and the two Zanglers meet up for a delightful rendition of the comedy number “What Causes That?” Maria Rizzo plays no-nonsense Zangler wrangler Tess with the requisite Thelma Ritter grittiness, and Jones comes up with some nimble steps for an ensemble of as many as 16 actor-dancers, who let’s just say are earning every dime of their paychecks.
You’re more impressed than swept away, though, over the course of these 2½ hours. It may be, too, that the showbiz archetypes that “Crazy for You” celebrates no longer live all that vibrantly in the bodies of young actors: Even the romance of Bobby and Spencer’s Polly Baker has a prefab quality to it. Or maybe the whole enterprise belongs under the lights of its own, separate well-defined space — a picture in a frame to be admired from a distance.
Crazy For You , music and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, book by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Matthew Gardiner. Choreography, Denis Jones; music direction, Jon Kalbfleisch; sets, Paul Tate dePoo III; costumes, Tristan Raines; lighting, Jason Lyons; sound, Ryan Hickey; wigs, Leah Loukas; orchestrations, William David Brohn; production stage manager, Kerry Epstein. With Natascia Diaz, Sherri L. Edelen, Cole Burden, Harry A. Winter, Thomas Adrian Simpson, Sean Bell. About 2½ hours. $40-$113. Through Jan. 14 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Call 703-820-9771 or visit sigtheatre.org.