A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
I really thought that Steel Pier might be that rare no-quibble review, like Chicago, and unlike my more faint-hearted praises for Titanic and Dream.
While I wasn't in Atlantic City during its most fabulous era, I do have fond memories of its pre-gambling days when you could rent a horse to ride along the beach, and enjoy a romantic weekend at one of its many nice hotels. Also there was the an open rehearsal almost two months ago which left me with a distinct sense that this might indeed be a show with long legs.
The idea of a dance show set in Atlantic City circa 1933 built around the famous marathon dance contests of the Depression seemed a much less risky idea than a musical about a sinking ship. With those well-known hit makers Kander and Ebb at the musical helm, and the gifted choreographer Susan Stroman of Crazy For You fame to help the marathoners strut their stuff, this seemed like one of the better ideas for a musical to come down the pike in a while. After all a cult movie, (They Shoot Horses Don't They), and a play about marathons, (by June Havoc), had already confirmed the public's fascination with these dancing equivalents of boxing matches and other gladiator-like events. Now Stroman and David Thompson promised to overlay the razzle-dazzle of the famous Steel Pier and these festive-seeming but hard-edged dance contests with a romantic triangle starring the talented Karen Ziemba) and two handsome leading men.
The taste of the show impressions I took away from that rehearsal studio was not incorrect. But such tid-bit overviews are about 90% less finished than an early preview. Thus, while much of the promise I saw in that rehearsal has been realized to possibly give the show enough muscle for a decent run at the Richard Rodgers Theater, Steel Pier is, like other recently reviewed mega musicals a moment-by-moment rather than an unqualified success.
Karen Ziemba, whose memorable performance in the revue And the World Goes Round, shows that she is up to the demands of a book musical, both as a singer and a dancer. However, since composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb seem to do best by anti-heroines, Ziemba who's more a sweet than a peppery heroine, is stuck with a role that goes against the Kander-Ebb grain. Which brings us to the book by David Thompson.
When I asked Thompson at the March 4th rehearsal about the relationship of this musical marathon to the earlier and far from light-hearted They Shoot Horses, Don't They movie, he was quick to deny any connection. "Most people associate dance marathons and the Great Depression with people being desperate for money and nobody having a good time", he declared. He went on to explain how the show's emphasis would be on the time and place as "magical" and that the contests were not just a way to be fed and housed temporarily but to be part of show business, like the variety acts and big bands who played the Steel Pier. Trouble is that what he said didn't quite jibe with what I saw on post-opening night. There was magic in the sense that the cast is terrifically talented and even more spirited than they were when I saw them without William Ivey Long's marvelously authentic and attractive costumes-- (the Cellophane Wedding number excepted!).
The difference between a little of the Steel Pier music and lyrics and the cumulative effect of more than two hours of it proved equally deceiving. To quote David Thompson once again, he very perceptively defined what the Kander and Ebb sound meant to him, as "sassy with mustard." Unfortunately, he seems to have forgotten his definition while developing the Steel Pier characters and plot. Either that or, like the creative team of Titanic, (and Wendy Wasserstein in her non-musical An American Daughter), he and Susan Stroman and Kander and Ebb have tried to insure a win-win-win show by hitting too many bases--the cynically exploitative marathon dances for the sass and mustard and a fairy tale romance to please the romantics.
At any rate, despite Stroman's usual creativity as a choreographer, the end result of these at times endless round and round the dance floor numbers is surprisingly repetitious. If you'd told me when I watched her rehearse her troops that I would find any of this dancing tiresome, I would have said "no way." It looked like such fun. And much of the time it is but, like the title of one of the numbers, it also frequently looks as if everyone is "running in place."
And for sure, as the grueling marathon proceeds, the only thing that separates this show from the dispiriting scenario of the movie is that the dancers' stories aren't as fully developed or for that matter as memorable. The "sprint" number at the end of Act 1 is more painful than fun and not even for a moment, magical.
Don't get me wrong, the show does have its share of the anticipated razzle-dazzle. Many of the dances do have the "sassy with mustard" sound and spirit. And there are several Kander-Ebb-ian anti-hero roles, though the two most notable ones are in the supporting role department. Deborah Monk's Shelley is one of those shrewd and tough characters who know how to navigate life's most difficult marathons. Her show-stopping, "Everybody's Girl" personifies Kander and Ebb at their naughtiest, baudiest, funniest best. The encore she's allowed is all too brief and her only other number, the more low-key but still hard-edged "Somebody Older" in Act 2, is unfortunately almost a throwaway number.
Another supporting player, Kristin Chenoweth, as Precious is closer to the heroine--or anti-heroine-- of Cabaret than Rita Racine. Precious is as hell-bent on success as Sally Bowles, but like Monk, her role is drowned out by the roar of the dreamy, tinkly metaphors that are supposed to set this marathon apart from its more disheartening real-life counterparts.
In the leading man department, Gregory Harrison, who during my earlier glimpse of him showed promise of being a younger James Naughton, (Chicago's Billy Flynn), fails to bring a totally persuasive mix of manipulativeness and charisma to the role of Mick Hamilton. Daniel McDonald as the somewhat (but not very) mysterious flyboy Bill Kelly, is handsome and endearing and his voice is a lot stronger now than I remember from his rehearsal sample. Like the girl of his dreams, however, he is locked into a part that goes counter to Kander and Ebb's strengths.
As for the sets, the Steel Pier curtain is spectacular. I was struck by the eye-popping advertisements for this and seeing it expanded with changing images at the beginning of each act is even better. The rest of the set by Tony Walton is better than good, but not the best of his work that I've seen. The neon lights seemed to pop up and down as frequently as an elevator in a busy office building. And the excess of steam distracted from the show's biggest spectacle sequence. As you watched the musicians in the orchestra pit engulfed in steam and the people in the front row desperately fanning themselves with their programs, a lot of steam actually went out of this scene which embodies the overriding metaphor of flying as a symbol for independence and dream fulfillment. Too bad too that so many other potentially high-flying moments fail to soar as high as they could.
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