Backstage at the Zangler Theatre in New York in the 1930s, the Zangler Follies wraps its final performance for the season. Tess, the dance director, dodges the advances of the married producer, Bela Zangler. Bobby Child, the rich son of a banking family, auditions for Mr. Zangler ("K-ra-zy for You") but ruins his chances by stepping on Zangler's foot. Dejected, Bobby heads outside, where he meets up with his disapproving mother and his wealthy long-time fiancée, Irene. Bobby's mother demands that he travel to Deadrock, Nevada, to foreclose on a rundown theatre. As the women argue over him, Bobby imagines himself dancing with the Follies Girls ("I Can't Be Bothered Now"). Brought back to reality, he decides to escape to Nevada.
Meanwhile, life is slow in Deadrock, a sleepy gold-mining town full of dawdling cowboys ("Bidin' My Time"). Everett Baker, owner of Deadrock’s Gaiety Theatre, receives a notice of foreclosure from New York, signed by “Bobby Child.” Everett's daughter Polly, the only woman left in Deadrock, vows to get even with this Bobby Child, if she ever meets him. Lank Hawkins, proprietor of the town's saloon, urges Everett to let him buy the theatre before the bank takes it. But Everett refuses for sentimental reasons: Polly's mother was once the theatre’s star attraction, and he can’t let it go.
Bobby enters Deadrock exhausted and nearly dying of thirst, but he takes one look at Polly and suddenly "Things Are Looking Up." Lank is angered to see a rival for Polly's affections. Bobby finds himself in quite a bind: if he forecloses on the theatre, he’ll lose the girl of his dreams. He suggests they put on a show to pay off the mortgage. Polly agrees to this plan until she finds out who he is and suspects a trick. Bobby and Polly are both heartbroken, but Bobby decides to put on the show anyway... disguised as Mr. Zangler. Polly, deeply hurt, expresses her loneliness ("Someone to Watch Over Me").
A few days later, ten Zangler Follies girls arrive in Deadrock. Bobby has asked them to help stage a spectacular show at the Gaiety. The men of Deadrock are thrilled to see the girls, and they agree to appear in the show. But rehearsals for the show are disastrous; the cowboys are terrible dancers. Bobby, disguised as Zangler, masterfully changes all that in a single rehearsal ("Slap That Bass"), and the show is back on track. To Bobby's dismay, however, Irene shows up, threatening to expose Bobby's charade. And Polly has fallen in love with Bobby's impersonation of Zangler ("Embraceable You").
Opening night arrives, with everyone in high hopes ("Tonight's the Night!"). Sadly, the only people to attend are Eugene and Patricia Fodor, British tourists writing a guidebook on the American West. Despite the disappointment, everyone realises that the show has galvanised and revitalised their once-sleepy town. As they celebrate with a spirited rendition of "I Got Rhythm," the real Zangler stumbles in unnoticed. Dehydrated and exhausted, he takes a few steps and collapses.
In Lank's saloon, Bobby professes his love to Polly. Unfortunately, she is still in love with the man she thinks is Zangler. Just as Bobby is about to convince Polly that he has been impersonating Zangler, the real Zangler stumbles into the saloon looking for Tess. Zangler refuses Tess’s request to produce the show, and Tess storms off. Zangler and Bobby – still dressed like Zangler – separately drown their sorrows, lamenting their lost loves ("What Causes That?"). The next morning, Polly sees the two Zanglers and realises what has happened. She slaps Bobby and leaves in a huff. Irene insists that Bobby return to New York with her, but Bobby rejects her and affirms his love for Polly. Frustrated and hurt, Irene seduces Lank ("Naughty Baby").
The townsfolk all gather at the theatre. Bobby wants to try the show again, but Polly thinks they should abandon the venture. The Fodors encourage the dejected townspeople ("Stiff Upper Lip") but by the end of the song, only Polly, Everett, Bobby, and Tess still think the show should continue. Everyone exits, leaving Bobby and Polly alone. Bobby plans to return to New York, promising that his memories of Polly will never fade ("They Can't Take That Away from Me"). Left alone, Polly realises that she does love Bobby ("But Not For Me"). Zangler agrees to stay in Deadrock and back the show after all. He spends his last dollar putting together a top-notch production, starring Polly, to show Tess how much he loves her.
Six weeks later, at his mother's bank in New York, Bobby is still thinking of Deadrock. For his birthday, Mrs. Child gives Bobby the deed to the Zangler Theatre, which she acquired when Zangler spent all his money in Deadrock. Though initially ecstatic, Bobby realises that his love for Polly is worth more ("Nice Work If You Can Get It"), so he and his mother return to Deadrock to pursue her.
Meanwhile, Deadrock has been transformed into a jewel of a city where "The Deadrock Follies" – starring Polly – has been playing to packed houses. Nevertheless, Polly misses Bobby, and she decides to look for him in New York. Polly and Bobby cross paths, just missing each other. Irene marries Lank, and Bobby's mother strikes up a romance with Everett (“Things Are Looking Up – Reprise”). Polly returns (her ride ran out of gas) and Bobby and Polly embrace at last. The entire company celebrates (“Finale: Embraceable You”).