Dan De Luca and Elena Ricardo in “The Nutty Professor” at Ogunquit Playhouse. Photo by Nile Hawver, Nile Scott Studios

Comedian Jerry Lewis, who died in 2017, left behind a somewhat complicated legacy. But, in his prime, he could make people laugh, and occasionally cry, like few other performers.

Lewis’s 1963 film “The Nutty Professor” is rated one of the best comedies ever made. And now an updated and warmly engaging new musical version of the movie has arrived onstage at the Ogunquit Playhouse.

The original musical, directed by Lewis himself and featuring music by Marvin Hamlisch, had a brief run in Nashville 10 years ago. This latest production, directed by Marc Bruni and with a book and lyrics by Rupert Holmes, embraces the terrific Hamlisch tunes and Lewis comedic inspiration with some outstanding performances to make for a light, lively and marvelously tuneful couple of hours at the legendary venue.

The story, a take on the classic tale of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” tells of a nerdy chemistry professor who ingests a potion that at least temporarily changes his life.  One minute, he’s the put-upon schlub Julius Kelp, the next, a charismatic lounge lizard named Buddy Love. His very real dilemma about who he wants to be is central to the show’s messaging about the costs and rewards of being true to yourself in a world that might seem to want you to be someone else.

Dan De Luca takes the lead role(s) and obviously knows his way around both extremes of the Julius/Buddy continuum. Though director Bruni is emphatic in his program notes that the show is not trying to “duplicate” the work of Lewis, it is hard not to think of Lewis in De Luca’s performance. In fact, some of the funniest moments in the show come about precisely when the nerdiness of Julius is both physically and psychologically on display in ways reminiscent of the master comic.

De Luca charms anew by way of some classic physical and verbal shtick, as well as in tunes with a heart-strings-tugging quality (“Stella” and “So Much for Me”). His Buddy can croon “(Hey, Is It Me Or) Is It Hot in Here?” with a swinging, period showbiz style. But in a matinee performance last week, it was in the moments when the potion wore off and he melted down into Julius that had the crowd laughing the hardest.


Elena Ricardo plays love interest Stella, updated in this production to an assertive young professor who wants to be taken seriously (“Dance to My Own Drummer”) by both the troglodyte college administrator Warfield and playboy Buddy.

Ricardo revealed a very fine voice on such showstopper tunes as “Too Much for Me” and the anthemic “While I Still Have the Time,” songs that also reconfirm the exceptional talents of Hamlisch and Holmes at lifting moments of a show into the stratosphere.

Jeff McCarthy and Klea Blackhurst stand out as the administrator and his smitten assistant Miss Lemon, both urged by Buddy into revealing truer selves through song and dance. Mel Johnson Jr., as a philanthropist, has some funny exchanges with his avaricious son (Fernell Hogan).

An eight-piece band directed by Matt Deitchman, set up at the rear of the mildly expressionistic stage sets (by Wilson Chin and Riw Rakkulchon), powers up behind the singers and dancers (kaleidoscopic choreography by Joann M. Hunter) in period costumes (designed by Mara Blumenfeld) for numbers that reflect the early ’60s ethos of school spirit, Vegas flash (lighting design by Cory Pattak), late-period swing and early rock ‘n’ roll music (sound design By Kevin Heard).

It all ultimately comes down to whether life has a broader imperative than, as Buddy puts it, “survival of the coolest.” It’s a good question, entertainingly asked in this fun midsummer offering from the Ogunquit Playhouse.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: