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CurtainUp 's Sneak Peek at the New
Kander and Ebb Musical
Steel Pier

After attending a March 4th open rehearsal of Steel Pier I was reminded of this bit of homespun logic: "It looks like a duck. . .it waddles like a duck. . . it quacks like a duck. Ergo, it must be a duck!" Steel Pier neither waddles or quacks, but . . .

It feels like a hit
It sounds like a hit
It looks like a hit it going to be a hit?

This being a preview, not a review, I can only attempt to share with you the flavor of the hors d'oeuvres I got to sample during the rehearsal of the show. The setting was a bare-bones studio near the Hudson River. The only costumes, (William Ivey Long is the show's designer), and sets (by Tony Walton), I saw were a few renderings, and a smattering of props which included a basket chair that wheeled Debra Monk onto the still imaginary boardwalk. The voices I heard were un-miked (in an ideal world, the only way to hear people sing), and the "plot" for the four numbers that were performed was synopsized by choreographer Susan Stroman and director Scott Ellis . This kind of use-your-imagination experience is actually a great way to attune one's eye and ear to the music and the performers. Here then four pieces of "evidence" to back up the it's a hit sense I took away from the March 4th sneak peek, plus some bits and pieces about people in the show.

1. A Book That Gives A Romantic Spin to a Familiar and Fascinating Historic Situation
2. The Classic Sound of the Hit-Making songwriting Duo, Kander and Ebb
3. Lots of High-Stepping Dances Choreographed By the Multiple Award-Winning Susan Stroman
4. An Air of Congeniality and High Spirits Throughout this "Family" Forged from Months of Rehearsals
Bits and Pieces About People In the Show
  1. A Book That Gives a Romantic Spin to a Familiar and Fascinating Historic Situation And Place.

    "Most people associate dance marathons and the Great Depression with people being desperate for money and nobody having a good time," David Thompson who wrote the book, told me during an interview after the presentation. "But in 1933 Atlantic City was also a magical place where all the big bands came to play. Fred Ebb remembers being taken there as a child and how elegant it was." (A friend of mine, who's about Ebb's age and grew up in Philadelphia, told me the next day that Atlantic City was indeed a magical destination during her childhood).

    When I asked Thompson if his story had any of the elements of the movie They Shoot Horses Don't They, he emphatically stated that this show is a complete turnaround of that picture's darker vision. "We wanted to show how for many people the marathons were fun and romantic and represented hope." He mentioned the part Debra Monk plays as an example. "Her character, Shelby, just loved those dances." Since the show is based on an actual place and events, it involved lots of research, including interviews with people who took part in the marathons and trips to Atlantic City where a remnant of the Steel Pier still stands. Most of all, it's a love story--a triangle in which Rita, (Karen Ziemba), is torn between Mick (Gregory Harrison) a tough show biz entrepreneur who could be a son or nephew of Chicago's Billy Flynn, and the gentle flier Bill, (Daniel McDonald)--or, perhaps trying her wings without either. To add a dash of intrigue to the triangle, Rita and Mick are secretly married and being the win-win-win minded guy he is, Mick's got it all fixed up that she'll be the last one standing at the end of the marathon around which the show revolves.

  2. The Classic Sound of the Hit-Making songwriting Duo, Kander and Ebb

    The two have been a win-win-win team longer than anyone writing music for Broadway today, and if Steel Pier lives up to my gut feelings, it will be their second mega hit musical of this season, (Chicago). The updated version of their Flora, the Red Menace gave three of the key Steel Pier-ers-- Scott Ellis, Susan Stroman and David Thompson --their big breaks. And it was their desire to do something fresh and new with Kander and Ebb, that, according to Thompson, started the ball rolling for the current show.

    What exactly is the classic Kander and Ebb sound? To quote Thompson once again: "a little sassy and with mustard." Judging from the few Steel Pier numbers I heard, the two songsmiths are still cutting the mustard. In the Act one, scene two song "Winning" Mick's character evolves loud and clear as he sings:

    "It's a wonderful remedy--winning
    You know where the good lies--winning"

    and...spreading on the mustard:

    "Let scruples melt
    Hit them hard below the belt"

    The set-up songs also showed a bit of the triangle in the making. We see Mick dancing with Karen as Bill looks at them yearningly and sings:

    "The last girl I'll ever love is over there
    Dancing in someone else's arms
    She dazzles like a mirror in the sun. . ."

  3. Lots of High-Stepping Dances Choreographed By the Multiple Award-Winning Susan Stroman.

    Like many other musical theater goers, I've admired Stroman's work in hit shows like, Crazy for You as well as Kander and Ebb's revue, And the World Goes 'Round, ( in which David Thomson and Karen Ziemba also participated). However I never met Stroman until this rehearsal and as I watched her work with the Company before the morning's events got under way, I was also taken by the genial yet authoritative leadership. Not to mention her ebullience which somebody ought to bottle and sell as an anti-depressant.

    Naturally, any historically accurate show about the famous Marathons will have to have to include the dances they were expected to perform. The numbers and Stroman has worked them all into the show. They fall into three main types:

    Ballroom numbers Fox Trot. . .Waltz. . .Rumba. . .Quick Step. . .One Step. . .Two Step. . .Polka. . .Lindy Hop (reputedly named by a marathon champion Shorty George in honor of Charles Lindbergh who epitomized the public's fascination with fliers and flying air shows. A sample dream sequence from the beginning Act 2 was presented as an illustration of the way the flying as a metaphor for hope and risk-taking permeates the show).

    Non-ballroom numbers: Trucking . . .Shag. . .Susie Q. . .Sugar. . .Black Bottom. . .Charleston. . .Shimmy. . .Shorty George. . .Eccentric Dance (Cake Walk). .Cattle Walk. . .Castle Polka. . .Soft Shoe. . .and, of course, Tap Dancing!

    Animal Dances: Grizzly Bear. . .Bunny Hug. . .Turkey Trot. . .Moochie. . .Fish Tail. . .Monkey Dance. . .Fast Fox Trot. . .Grind Snake. . .Hips. Created during the Ragtime era, animal dances were a favorite in the marathons. Couples would hold each other so close that one could scarcely slip a piece of paper between them (much to the dismay of religious groups and morality leagues).

  4. An Air of Congeniality and High Spirits Throughout this "Family" Forged from Months of Rehearsals

    This seemed true of the show's head angel, Producer Roger Berlind, who wandered around the studio like a proud father, the creative team and the cast. You often hear about the sense of family that develops during a show's rehearsal period and this was clearly in evidence before the presentation began and afterwards. You also hear about shows where tension of the black cloud variety, overhangs the rehearsal studios. Jerry Herman gives some vivid examples in his memoir
    Showtune. While the weather in New York was pretty miserable on March 4th, the sunshine that prevailed inside that windowless studio seemed too real to be a case of putting on a "front" for the press.

Bits and Pieces About People In the Show