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A CurtainUp Review
The Band Wagon
Credit Beane for picking up, perking up and indeed finishing the plot/text that purists know had nothing at all to do with the 1931 Broadway revue The Band Wagon . That show, however, did have a bountiful score by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz but it was mainly strung together with funny but unrelated skits and sketches by the incomparable George S. Kaufman and Dietz.
Thank goodness that the score survived, that Comden and Green did something with it twenty-two years later, and that Beane, has finally added the finishing touches. Presumably MGM wouldn't pay Comden and Green to finish the screenplay so the team simply got up and left Hollywood. It wouldn't be wrong to say that Beane picked up where Comden and Green left off.
The 1953 film, happily retained the score that included such gems as "You and the Night and the Music," "I Love Louisa," "Something to Remember You By," "Dancing in the Dark." all of which Comden and Green used to compliment their original story. Only one new song was added for the film version, "That's Entertainment," and it became an instant classic.
The 1931 revue is considered by many to be the greatest stage revue of all time, so the 1953 screen version is second only to Singin' in the Rain as Hollywood's greatest film musical. So, just how great is the latest version? Well maybe it's not quite the second greatest stage musical of all time, but it is very good indeed. And that brings us to what is To get a better perspective on the delightful entertainment now part of the City Center Encore Series, we have to look back to 2008 when Beane's first stage adaptation entitled Dancing in the Dark of the screenplay opened in San Diego to tepid reviews.
The good news is that The Band Wagon has now been pumped up and plumped up with more wit than it can almost comfortably accommodate. . . but no complaints on that score. It has been afforded a cast that makes every line fly. Presumably producers Fran and Barry Weisler (spotted them at the Saturday evening performance I attended) are hoping for the kind of reception that will encourage a move to a Broadway house this season before the Tony cut-off time.
The Encores! this cast is bringing out the best and the funniest aspects of this grandly giddy musical. The plot is somewhat deliciously hackneyed. Under the breezy direction of Kathleen Marshall, who also did the choreography, it whizzes by with one funny line and frenetic scene after another. The sublime silliness includes a rousing tap-dancing finale for the entire company.
Brian Stokes Mitchell, whose numerous Broadway credits (Man of La Mancha , Kiss Me Kate , King Hedley II ) are generally accompanied with an award or nomination is certainly nothing like Fred Astaire who starred in both the 1931 revue and 1953 film. But he's a good-looking charmer and quite splendid as film star Tony Hunter who is trying to kick-start his waning career with a Broadway show. His graceful dancing (especially notable in his teaming with Tony Sheldon for "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plans") is as pleasing as his singing of numbers like "When You're Far Away from New York Town" and "By Myself."
Sheldon (Priscilla Queen of the Desert ) takes pretentiousness to its peak of pomposity as the British director whose grandiose ideas are in conflict with the show's married-to-each-other down-to-earth writers, delightfully played by Michael McKean and Tracey Ullman. Comden and Green styled those roles after themselves although they were not married to each other. McKean, who most recently played J. Edgar Hoover in All the Way and Ullman, who is perhaps best known for TV's The Tracey Ullman Show are so terrific and touching that they come within a hair's breath of making this show all about them — especially with "Something to Remember You By." Laura Osnes is lovely as the conflicted ballerina torn between her feelings for the leading man and those for the ego-maniacal choreographer devilishly played by Michael Berresse.
So what if it has taken six years to do the fixes and work out the kinks for this Band Wagon . It has finally come to these shores a humdinger. No knowedge of the show's history is required to laugh at as well as love the egotistical characters who inhabit this crisp, music and dance-filled backstage romp.
It's also okay that The Band Wagon is not your typical resurrection/revival of a musical from the golden age. It is a warmly satiric look at a company of blissfully self-absorbed theater professionals who are having a helluva time getting a musical in shape out of town and ready for opening night on Broadway.
As is expected with the Encores! Series, the production values are kept minimal, although more stops have been pulled out for this production show with lots of ropes and pulleys creating the feeling of being back-stage. A Faustian ballet is given its parodic due with plenty of hell-fire and smoke. The modest size orchestra (twelve musicians) resides on stage under the direction of music director Todd Ellison and sounds like twice that number thanks to the terrific orchestrations by Larry Hochman and the arrangements by Eric Stern.
Billed as a special event, Band Wagon could prove to be very special if it succeeds in its hope to move to Broadway so more people can see it.
Editor's Note: I saw The Band Wagon, a day after Simon, and knowing less of its history than he, can second his comment that you don't need to be familiar with its history to love it all.The more than usual number of costumes (and mighty handsome they are), and the 10-day instead of usual 5-day run make that move to Broadway a real possibility. My fingers are crossed, for I wouldn't mind seeing it again. E.S.