Trading Places Review: Modern Touches Brighten Uneven Adaptation of Reagan-Era Movie Comedy

After the Great Recession of ’08 — not to mention anxiety about the current economy — will a Reagan-era comedy about insider trading and the glory of greed get the same laughs? Can it sing, too?

In the 1983 movie “Trading Places,” the life of a financial manager is switched with a Philly street hustler when two filthy-rich commodities brokers — brothers Mortimer and Randolph Duke  — make a nature-versus-nurture wager and puppet-master their secret social experiment. The same prince-and-pauper plot outline applies to the latest film-to-musical treatment premiering this month at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, which last launched the joyous “The Prom” to New York — and before that, the less successful “Tuck Everlasting.”

But this screwball switcheroo still has a long way to go before it’s a safe Broadway bet. At this stage, it’s off-balance in its leads, inconsistent in its tone and uneven in its comedy and tunes, while still managing to deliver some fun along the way.

In the film, Eddie Murphy’s brazen con artist stole the spotlight from Dan Aykroyd playing Louis Winthrope III, the preppy  financier brought down to the gutter by the manipulative brothers (played onstage by Marc Kudisch and Lenny Wolpe). But here, Bryce Pinkham — who knows a few things about playing privilege from “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” —  dominates as Louis. He’s delightfully ridiculous, even when given middling material.

Pinkham is also in grand voice and makes delicious sport of Alan Zachary and Michael Weiner’s eclectic but unremarkable tunes, especially the wistful and witty “What Time Is It in Gstaad?”

The role of Billy Ray Valentine — which Murphy played with comic abandon — is now gender flipped to Billie Rae (Aneesa Folds, who was so fine in the improvisatory “Freestyle Love Supreme”). But Folds, with a character that has been softened and sentimentalized, has no opportunity to showcase any comic riffs. With little edge and audaciousness, she has no chance to make a break-out impression. Folds’ singing chops are impressive, but her 11 o’clock number, the generic anthem “Not Anymore,” feels unearned.

Part of the problem is the musical feels constrained by the film’s complicated and nonsensical plotting — not to mention the tutorial on the market fluctuations of orange crop futures. At least the second act has a greater sense of energy and fun once the revenge caper kicks in.

Fortunately the film’s slurs and blackface have been scratched and some contemporary sensibilities have been added, although the story remains set in the ’80s. The prostitute pal Ophelia, who comes to Louis’ rescue —played by Jamie Lee Curtis in the film — is now a kindly Puerto Rican drag queen (Michael Longoria). Louis’ bland blonde fiancé Penelope (McKenzie Kurtz, very good) gets a bit of a feminist facelift, but the character’s continual engagement in the plot feels superfluous. The wildly eccentric Josh Lamon turns the villainous Mr. Beeks into something out of “Beetlejuice.” It’s totally bizarre, but at a certain point anything that pops and gets a laugh is welcome.

Wolpe and Kudisch are solid as the manipulating brothers, with Kudisch having libidinous fun in a number with Longoria and a floor polisher. Breaking the fourth wall to introduce both acts to the audience is Don Stephenson as the nonplussed butler Coleman, a clever device that could have solved some of the exposition problems. One also misses a musical connection between Coleman and Billie and between Billie and Louis.

Director Kenny Leon oversees this hodgepodge of styles and sensibilities but keeps things moderately lively. Beowulf Boritt’s set has several splendid design elements (including a nice nod to the film’s Dukes), a few rudimentary ones and one neon puzzler.

The film’s devotees may enjoy revisiting some lines and scenes, but at this stage of the musical’s development, the switch to the stage isn’t a trade up.

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