Director Scott Ellis knows a thing or two about reviving musty Broadway shows, having breathed new life into “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” “Harvey,” and “Twelve Angry Men” in recent years. But in restaging the Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman chestnut “You Can’t Take It With You,” he faced some particularly dicey challenges.
Not only is the 1936 farce about a daffy family sort of hokey, but Ellis must juggle 20 oddball characters — many of them onstage at once — indulging in such antics as interpretive ballet, playing a giant xylophone, and setting off fireworks. The action is confined to a single set, the New York home of patriarch Martin Vanderhof. And the play is written in three acts with two intermissions, which can be trying for today’s fidgety audiences used to the wham-bam 90-minute format.
There’s good reason “You Can’t Take It With You” has been absent from Broadway for three decades. In the wrong hands, the fluffy comedy could collapse like a soufflé.
Rest assured, the play is safe with Ellis. He’s brushed off the cobwebs and punched it up with some eye-popping effects that feel organic to the material. It doesn’t hurt that he’s had experience directing wacky TV shows like “Modern Family,” which the play weirdly prefigures.
Ellis has assembled a top-drawer cast, led by none other than James Earl Jones, who lends just the right balance of goofiness and gravitas to kindly Grandpa Vanderhof. Kristine Nielsen brings the batty spasticity she perfected in “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” to daughter Penelope, an aspiring playwright of sexy melodramas. Her pyromaniac husband, Paul, is embodied with off-kilter charm by the ever-reliable Mark Linn-Baker.
Their footloose daughter Essie, who appears to live her life as the lead in “Giselle,” is nimbly played by Annaleigh Ashford (a knockout in “Kinky Boots”). The other daughter, Alice, who falls for a Wall Street titan’s handsome son (Fran Kranz), is played with remarkable sensitivity by Rose Byrne of TV’s “Damages” fame. In the 1965 revival, by the way, Alice was played by the venerable Rosemary Harris, currently wowing audiences in Tom Stoppard’s “Indian Ink.”
The delightful Julie Halston, veteran of many a Charles Busch spoof, stops the show with her portrayal of a sloshed visitor, one moment passing out cold, the next stumbling in slow motion up the staircase. And we can’t forget the illustrious Elizabeth Ashley, who imbues a grand dignity to Olga, a Russian duchess reduced to waiting tables in Times Square.
The pyrotechnics on display are hardly limited to the performances. Those fireworks that Paul and pals are concocting in the basement are made of real explosives, a first for any production of the play. Sure they’re a bit gimmicky, but they’re awesome to watch.
Ellis has also added a few live critters to the mix. Penelope has two cuddly kitten companions (after the run of the show, they are available for adoption). And you can actually see Grandpa’s snakes slithering around in an aquarium in the corner of the room.
David Rockwell has crafted a living/ dining area that’s even more eccentric than the Vanderhof clan — a comfy, Victorian-style manse with wooden beams and stuffed to the gills with all kinds of old paintings, knick-knacks, and gewgaws. There’s even a printing press.
The zippy original music by Jason Robert Brown, who won two Tony Awards last season for “Bridges of Madison County,” is an inspired touch, as well.
There are multiple plot fragments beneath the mayhem. Grandpa, who lives a sedate life after he quit his soul-crushing job years ago, now has G-men hounding him for evading taxes for 23 years (he just shrugs and shoos them away). Alice, perhaps the most “normal” of the bunch, is torn between two worlds — her loving, bizarre family and a life of luxury with her fianc_. When he and his disapproving, snobby parents, dressed to the nines, pay an unexpected visit, havoc ensues.
The dilemma so artfully rendered here is timeless: Is it better be “normal” slogging away at a lousy job earning decent money or let your freak flag fly and follow your bliss, earning just enough to get by? Maybe you can’t take it with you, but this briskly paced, fine revival proves that, at least for one magical evening, you really can go home again.
YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU | Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St. | Through Jan. 24: Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $37-$152 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | 2 hrs. and 15 mins.