If you haven’t noticed, the fortunes of
Kander and Ebb (the latter died in 2004) have been on the rise. They’ve
been presences since Cabaret (1966), but the phenomenal success of many revivals of Chicago—also an initial disappointment at its opening opposite A Chorus Line in 1975—has increased interest in everything they’ve done. Steel Pier may
not have any hit songs (rare in Broadway shows these days, anyway), but
it did boast the talents of choreographer Susan Stroman, who went on to
the successes of Mel Brooks’ The Producers (2001) and her own unique creation Contact (2000). Audiences know Steel Pier
is unlikely to be a movie, which Hollywood would surely mangle, and
it’s too dark and difficult ever to be touched by any other regional
Then there’s the anticipation generated
by director-choreographer David Wanstreet. There’s no need to get
smarmy about this, but he’s the gold standard, the nonpareil of Broadway-style choreographers in this part of the world, and everybody knows it.
Steel Pier is not merely a dance
show, but it’s set during the murderous dance marathons at Atlantic
City in summer 1933. Despite a framing narrative about the dangers of
airplane stunts and some complex plot developments, the large cast is
on its feet most of the time. And it’s not just the box-step of the
waltz. The forms of dance keep changing, one of the more spectacular
being a tap routine atop the spread wings of a biplane. (Credit scenic
designer Robert John Andrusko for moving that in quickly.) The most
dazzling of all is the death-sprint of exhausted dancers just before
the intermission curtain, part of which is staged in reverse.
This production of Steel Pier
offers solutions for bringing music into musicals staged at the Storch
Theatre (formerly Experimental), which was designed for spoken-word
dramas only. Wanstreet and ace musical director Nathan Hurwitz put the
10 players of the orchestra upstage, behind the action, so that we
always see them in silhouette. Quite apart from reminding us of the
artifice of remembering the Depression, the move immensely brightens
what we hear. Kander and Ebb’s harmonies and key changes reflect their
roots in modern orchestral music, with a complexity that cannot
David Thompson’s book for Steel Pier repeats some of the episodes from two other vehicles about the dance marathon craze, June Havoc’s Marathon ’33 (1964) and film director Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969),
based on Horace McCoy’s novel. Thompson brings two distinctions, the
first being an element of the supernatural. At the beginning of the
action we learn that stunt flyer Bill Kelly (Brendon Stimson) has been
killed in a crash and is allowed a three-week reprieve from eternity to
go back and cash in on a winning lottery ticket. This should have
allowed him to dance with minor celebrity Rita Racine (Nadine Malouf),
the girl who kissed Charles “Lucky” Lindbergh when he arrived home from
Thompson’s second distinction is the
creation of Rita, a fey ironist, who is secretly married to the sleazy
promoter and emcee, Mick Hamilton (Benjamin Michael), and therefore in
cahoots with him. She already knows it all, starting with how crooked
the awarding of the $2,000 prize will be.
In a sense there are never any stars in
SU Drama productions because a director is limited to casting whoever
has been admitted to the program. Certainly Wanstreet would never have
attempted such a demanding project without being confident he had crack
troops, not only among the leads and important supporting players but
every dancer and even the parading Mister Peanut (Christopher Dwan).
That said, Wanstreet and Hurwitz must have had the Australian-born Malouf in mind when they started Steel Pier. She already had a strong record as a powerhouse singer with an important role in Urinetown and as one of the two Mrs. Lovetts in last spring’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Here she’s both a lithe dancer and a break-your-heart actress. Her two
big second-act performances, the solo “Running in Place” and her half
of the duet with Stimson’s Bill Kelly, “First You Dream,” have the
cumulative weight of “Rose’s Turn” at the end of Gypsy. She’s an impressive musical tragedienne.
Happy feet: Cast members of SU Drama’s Steel Pier at full gallop. MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTO
Awarding laurels to other members of the
cast is a tricky business in that some smaller roles were written to
steal scenes whereas other bigger ones require sustained heavy lifting.
Among the men Brendon Stimson’s Bill has to play naive and true
opposite Malouf’s worldly-wise Rita while covered with slightly
cadaverous makeup, but he convinces Rita and us that true love might
exist, if fleetingly. His first-act solo, “Second Chance,” displays the
vocal charm of a leading man. Benjamin Michael’s contemptible Mick the
promoter is a masterpiece of tyrannical hypocrisy, demanding love from
the exploited. His opposite number is the hapless floor judge Walker,
played by Justin Nichols, whose character retains a shred of humanity
after weeks of groveling humiliation.
Among the women Kelsey Stalter creates a naughtier New Jersey edition of Oklahoma’s Ado
Annie as Shelby: “Gimme some cotton candy. I crave something pink and
sticky.” Her “Everybody’s Girl” stops the show, even when interrupted
by design. Pint-sized blonde Lauren Nolan brings Mozartian range to
desperate Precious McGuire, a role originated by Kristin Chenoweth.
Elegant Katja Zarolinski sketches moments of real pathos as Dora
Foster, too proud to grovel, who proves a sucker in the end.
Jonathan Herter’s sound design brings us
vintage airlines. Alok Wadhwani’s lighting sculpts the living
nightmare. And Meggan Camp Kulczynski’s costumes define visions of hell
and heaven, especially in the last scene. For the lucky hundreds who
get in to see SU Drama’s Steel Pier, they will brag about it for years.
This production runs through Sunday, Oct. 12. See Times Table for information.