Ensuring the relevance of a beloved but well-worn classic is as daunting a task as properly casting it—fortunately, for the newest revival of You Can’t Take It With You, director Scott Ellis keeps the Kaufman and Hart machine chugging along with aplomb. Assembling a first-rate ensemble and sending the audience roaring with snappy, smart staging, Ellis’ production is a reminder that revered classics with oft-stale notions (gentlemen callers!) need not feel like relics from the past.
Chalk it all up to top-notch performances from a dynamic cast with glorious comic timing. Presiding over them all is James Earl Jones, the marquee-heading patriarch of the dysfunctional Sycamore clan, who has achieved that rare level of legendary that infuses every word he says with a steady grace; he often breaks the manic momentum, but Jones makes it count. Kristine Nielsen—easily one of New York’s finest comic actresses—is dependably kooky; Fran Kranz charms as suitor Tony Kirby, and Julie Halston and Elizabeth Ashley both make the most of their brief, bizarre turns as a drunk actress and a Russian wash-up in acts 2 and 3, respectively. As odd woman out Alice, Rose Byrne (Bridesmaids) probably had the most to prove in her debut, but she’s a fine comic player and earns her keep among the seasoned colleagues, most admirably in her transformation into a frazzled madwoman during the second act’s tentpole dinner party.
But the clear stand-outs are Annaleigh Ashford (who has also been the best part of TV’s Masters of Sex) as wannabe ballerina Essie and her pretzel-legged husband Ed (a background-stealing Will Brill). Together, Ashford and Brill are pitch-perfect as the family’s nutty live-in couple, with Ashford’s physicality alone stopping the show on multiple occasions. It’s a one-note joke that Ashford elevates into something far beyond, and Brill is equally winsome.
Gorgeous set design notwithstanding, Ellis’ whiz-bang revival (playing through Jan. 4 at the Longacre Theatre) is a swell throwback to another era of theater, ushering the quintessential comedy back to Broadway with, quite literally, all the fireworks it deserves. A-