"Never Gonna Dance" is Fred and Ginger once removed, an affectionate if middlin' homage to Astaire and Rogers, the greatest dance team movie musicals ever produced.
The show, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre, is loosely based on "Swing Time," one of the duo's most entrancing films. It's a tough act to follow.
If this bland stage version never transports you to musical-comedy heaven, it is a pleasant enough diversion, particularly when a hardworking cast is hoofing its way through Jerry Mitchell's spirited choreography.
And the leads, Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager, while no Astaire and Rogers, remind you what a tonic fine dancing can be. Racey, who looks like J.C. Leyendecker's famous advertising illustration of the Arrow Collar man, is smoothly debonair. He's not much of a singer, but he makes a forceful partner. Lemenager, wide-eyed and with a shy smile, follows Racey's lead with ease.
Broadway has been pretty barren of good dance this season, so Mitchell's numbers come as a relief for those of us who think musical-theater choreography is becoming a lost art.
What's odd about "Never Gonna Dance" is that Mitchell's best work comes right at the top of the show. Nothing else tops the musical's first big production number and the evening gets bogged down in plot. In it, our hero, a vaudeville hoofer named Lucky Garnett, vows he won't dance until he earns $25,000 at some boring job and then can go back to Punxsutawney, Pa., to marry his wealthy fiancee.
The number, "I Won't Dance," is a rhythmic celebration to all the goings-on in Grand Central Terminal: from the brush of a shoe shine, to the slap of a newspaper bundle on a newsstand counter to the cries of a hot-dog vendor.
The lushly romantic numbers get imaginative staging. One is performed on a series of girders high and the other in front of mirrors that multiply the two dancers while giving us a glimpse of the audience.
"Never Gonna Dance" is overstuffed with songs, all with music by the great Jerome Kern, yet performed in disappointing Las Vegas-style orchestrations by Harold Wheeler. Some of the tunes are from "Swing Time," which featured the graceful, witty lyrics of Dorothy Fields. But other lyricists are represented here, too, including Oscar Hammerstein II, Ira Gershwin and Johnny Mercer.
As a result, Jeffrey Hatcher's slow-moving book gets a bit choppy. Director Michael Greif doesn't do much to alleviate this stop-and-go quality as he shoehorns song after song into the fragile plot. The story, such as it is, follows Lucky's budding romance with Penny, a dance-studio instructor, and their entry into a radio dance contest sponsored by that king of the airwaves, Major Bowes.
The supporting cast could not be stronger. Karen Ziemba, as the heroine's wisecracking best friend, is too good for the meager amount of material she's given here. Eugene Fleming and Deidre Goodwin deliver plenty of sass as two serious dance-contest competitors.
And Peter Bartlett, in what can only be described as the Eric Blore role, is blissfully funny as the ever-so gay dance-studio owner.
Set designer Robin Wagner's New York skyline looks surprisingly anemic although William Ivey Long's colorful costumes are properly sumptuous.
"Never Gonna Dance" never develops the consistent drive that propelled "Crazy For You" into a long run more than a decade ago.
"Crazy For You," a similar show in that it was a new musical using classic old songs, barreled along at a rapid pace.
"Dance" dawdles too much of the time.
As pledges go, the three words "never gonna dance" don't sound very serious.
In the Great Depression, however, they meant considerably more. Not to dance meant not to try to soar above all the things that could weigh you down. And that, at least in the firmament where Fred and Ginger shone, was close to a mortal sin.
This doctrine inspired a series of celluloid fantasies, which in turn have inspired "Never Gonna Dance," an effervescent tribute to that giddy sensibility. It opened last night at the Broadhurst Theater.
The show is based on the 1936 movie "Swing Time," in which Astaire, playing a vaudeville hoofer named Lucky, is engaged to a society girl. He promises to make $25,000 so he can return to Podunk and marry her.
Lucky goes to New York, where he meets a dance instructor named Penny, played by Rogers. A series of coincidences allow him to break his promise and marry her instead.
The last time I saw "Swing Time," I found its plot turns forced and irritating.
The first virtue of "Never Gonna Dance" is that its book, by Jeffrey Hatcher, tells the circuitous story with greater economy and humor than the original. The next is that the cast, especially those playing character roles, is marvelous.
Noah Racey, who plays Lucky, is a dazzling dancer and likable actor. His best singing comes in the slow, soulful version of the title song.
It is also true of his partner, Nancy Lemenager, that when she sings in a quiet, introspective fashion, as in "I'm Old Fashioned," she is at her most appealing. She is also a splendid dancer, and their duet in the title tune, in a mirror-filled Rainbow Room, is elegant.
Karen Ziemba is beguiling as Penny's wisecracking colleague. She does a bang-up job with two unfamiliar Jerome Kern songs, "Shimmy With Me" and "I Got Love." As her hobo beau, Peter Gerety achieves a triumph of raffish charm.
Eugene Fleming and Deidre Goodwin are sensational as a pair of "uptown" dancers, David Pittu is hilarious as a Latin lover, and Peter Bartlett is brilliant as a befuddled dance studio owner.
Jerry Mitchell's choreography is full of energy and lightness. His funniest idea is a scene set at Grand Central; Lucky tries to resist dancing to win a bet, but the rhythmic sounds in the train station keep inviting him to tap. It is witty and infectious.
One of the best ideas is to have Lucky and Penny dance to "The Way You Look Tonight" 65 floors above the city on scaffolding. The steps are sprightly - what is lacking is a sense of danger that would make the scene dramatic rather than just diverting, but perhaps that is the fault of director Michael Greif.
Robin Wagner's sets capture Depression Era New York evocatively. William Ivey Long's customary (should I say costume-ary?) wit and elegance are evident.
The star, of course, is composer Jerome Kern, whose songs give the show an emotional power that offsets its comic fizz.
Jerome Kern hasn't been writing many musicals lately - possibly because he was inconsiderate enough to have died in 1945.
So he never actually wrote the new-ish musical, "Never Gonna Dance," which nevertheless opened last night at the Broadhurst Theatre.
What Kern did do was to provide the music for the 1936 movie musical "Swing Time," starring the ineffable Fred Astaire and the adorable Ginger Rogers. It was possibly the high-water mark of an immortal partnership.
Now, from that movie's story (by Howard Lindsay and Allen Scott), Jeffrey Hatcher has come up with a workable, fairly sassy and quite witty book.
Lucky Garnett (Noah Racey), a professional hoofer, has a fiancee whose father won't let her wed until Lucky can make $20,000 in a month - without dancing.
So he heads to New York - fast-buck capital of the world - where by chance he meets dance teacher Penny Carroll (Nancy Lemenager). With a few stumbles, they dance their way to a perfectly fine romance. With kisses.
The gorgeous Kern music has been chopped and changed around from the original. Most of the movie score, with its Dorothy Fields lyrics, is kept - "Bojangles of Harlem," the only number Astaire ever did in blackface, is understandably gone - but there have been a lot of additions.
Some, such as "I Won't Dance" from "Roberta," or "Dearly Beloved" and "I'm Old Fashioned" from "You Were Never Lovelier," can be counted as pluses, but one or two interpolations have a distinctly lemony tang.
Only Astaire, Rogers and their dance director Hermes Pan are missing - and they are sorely missed.
Remarkably - though the show's been cleverly designed by Robert Wagner using all the right '30s art-deco flourishes, with perfectly styled costuming by William Ivey Long and Paul Gallo's intelligent lighting - it manages to look cheap and skimpy.
The director Michael Greif appears, for the most part, to have abdicated in favor of the choreographer, Jerry Mitchell, making it much more of a dance show than the movie was, with plenty of tap at the beginning and end.
Unfortunately, Mitchell is a very limited choreographer. You needed someone who could create the same stage variations on the Astaire/Pan style that Jerome Robbins achieved in his ballet, "I'm Old Fashioned." Mitchell is not yet in that class.
The performers are better than the staging. Racey as Lucky makes a particularly endearing hero - as long as you don't compare him with Astaire - and although Lemenager's Penny gets a little lost, the supporting cast supports valiantly.
Karen Ziemba enchants as the archetypal good-egg best friend, Peter Gerety bumbles nicely in the movie's old Victor Moore part of a bum who has known better days, while Peter Bartlett as the dance school owner is outrageously campy and funny in a role that is part Paul Lynde and part Mr. Charles of Palm Beach.
The others, including Eugene Fleming and Deidre Goodwin, as a couple caught up in an odd new subplot about a dance contest, are dandy. And if the show so often misses gear, there is always Kern's music.
That ain't chopped liver. It's pate de foie gras, with Dom Perignon on the side.
There was a time -- long, long ago, my children -- when Hollywood was the place where good musicals went to veg out. A racy, vivacious Broadway show like ''Pal Joey'' or ''Kiss Me, Kate'' would rush to California for a glamorous big-screen makeover and wind up with a lobotomy. Sure, there were exceptions. But more often than not, what finally lumbered into movie theaters resembled the neutered, empty-eyed Jack Nicholson at the end of ''One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.''
Well, as so often happens in history and pulp novels, the victim has turned victimizer. Over the last 20 years or so, an idea-starved Broadway has been doing to Hollywood what Hollywood so long did to it, draining the sex and spark out of classic movie musicals. Which brings us to ''Never Gonna Dance,'' the friendly but labor-free new adaptation of ''Swing Time,'' the blissful Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film from 1936.
''Never Gonna Dance,'' which opened last night at the Broadhurst Theater, is not one of those screen-to-stage conversions that make you want to run screaming for the nearest Buddhist monastery. It is not tacky and clunky like ''Urban Cowboy'' or ''Saturday Night Fever.'' And in a season of musical klutzburgers like ''Taboo'' and ''The Boy From Oz,'' it stands out as an inoffensive, gracefully danced and pleasantly sung diversion, a quieter answer to the current revival of ''42nd Street.''
But that's about as lavish as praise can be for this spiceless production, directed by Michael Greif (''Rent'') and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell (''Hairspray,'' ''The Full Monty''). Like ''Swing Time,'' this show celebrates dance as a love potion, in a universe fueled by the swoon-making melodies of Jerome Kern and set in an Art Deco never-never land of Depression-era Manhattan. What ''Never Gonna Dance'' lacks are the sharp individuality and the unconditional belief in its own enchanted world that make ''Swing Time'' feel so vital even today.
Broadway, of course, is famous for asking performers to fill seemingly unfillable shoes. (The latest productions of ''Gypsy,'' starring Bernadette Peters in the Ethel Merman role, and ''Wonderful Town,'' with Donna Murphy vanquishing the ghost of Rosalind Russell, are two examples with mercifully happy results.)
Still, who could possibly fit the shiny patent slippers of Astaire and Rogers, whose ineffable romantic chemistry has been inspiring rapturous sighs and earnest dissertations for more than six decades? ''Swing Time'' captured that chemistry at its peak. As the dance critic Arlene Croce wrote of it, ''There never was a more star-struck movie or a greater dance musical.''
So give due consideration to the brave, likable young dancers who have taken on the Astaire and Rogers roles, Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager. They move and sing with an effortless-seeming assurance. They are refreshingly free of that show-off aggressiveness that is so common to Broadway performers these days and would be fatal to the aspiringly insouciant charms of a show like this one.
Mr. Racey, in particular, has the makings of an elegant and original character dancer. In his solo numbers, he glows with a wonderfully goofy, free-wheeling glee that gives spontaneity to his meticulously choreographed steps, bringing to mind a baby-faced Ray Bolger.
But whenever he and Ms. Lemenager dance together, the flame sputters out. They look tasty and soigné in William Ivey Long's custom-fitted period costumes. But a couple of lyrical moments aside, their teamwork is a matter of the bland leading the bland.
The problems are built into Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation. In ''Swing Time,'' as in most of the Astaire-Rogers vehicles, there's plenty of friction between the leading lovers before they finally accept that they are destined to be together. Their dances usually begin as contests of wills, in which annoyance gradually melts into a sexual harmony that is truly the stuff of dreams.
Yet in ''Never Gonna Dance,'' Lucky Garnett (Mr. Racey) and Penny Carroll (Ms. Lemenager) seem comfortably matched, in the manner of affectionate siblings, from their first encounter in the dance studio where Penny teaches. There's no conflict or tension in even their first number together, ''Pick Yourself Up,'' where Lucky, a vaudeville hoofer, pretends he can't dance.
Mr. Mitchell's choreography doesn't build from one emotional state to another, despite Lucky's initial pretended awkwardness. The same paradoxical sense of kinetic stasis pervades the show. A couple of numbers break the monotony, but overall, the individual dances aren't shaped to go anywhere or tell a story. They're mostly happy tap routines that could be inserted pretty much anywhere.
It doesn't help that the characters have been reconceived in flatteningly generic terms, without the oddball quirks that defined their prototypes. Astaire and Rogers were worldly figures, though there was nothing jaded about them. Mr. Racey and Ms. Lemenager, for all their technical proficiency, have the dewy, unformed look of ingénues. They would be lovely second leads -- as one of those vulnerable young couples on the run whom the stars shepherd into romantic safety -- but they don't give the show its much-needed core of Personality with a capital P.
A similarly ersatz quality comes through in Robin Wagner's sets, which translate Manhattan glitter into mostly two-dimensional painted backdrops, and in the perfunctory reworking of the movie's plot. Lucky is trying to avoid earning the money he needs to marry the girl to whom he's engaged (Deborah Leamy), having instantly fallen for Penny, who is involved with a narcissistic nightclub star, Ricardo Romero (David Pittu).
This version introduces a big-cash amateur talent show sponsored by Major Bowes (based on the real person and played by Ron Orbach), in which Penny and Lucky face stiff competition from a couple of suspiciously talented hayseeds (Eugene Fleming and Deidre Goodwin, who inject some welcome, loose-limbed sensuality).
The story is no sillier than that of the original ''Swing Time.'' But it has to be enacted with a certain conviction -- so that a sparkly surface becomes a self-contained reality with its own depths -- for the audience to care whether Lucky and Penny wind up together. And Mr. Greif has led his cast into casual, throwaway performances that lack the conviction of either sincerity or all-out spoof.
Peter Bartlett's portrayal of a fussy dance-school manager is so swish that it turns the entire stage a sickly shade of mauve. (''Will and Grace'' and ''Queer Eye for the Straight Guy'' have a lot to answer for.) Only Peter Gerety and the wonderful Karen Ziemba -- in variations on the best-friend roles played by RKO character actors like Helen Broderick, Victor Moore and Edward Everett Horton -- evoke a 1930's-style comic whimsy and tartness.
Theatergoers hoping for a glimmer of the old Astaire-Rogers magic, in which dance is the language of love, won't be entirely disappointed. The scene in which Lucky, having sworn off dancing forever, arrives in Grand Central Terminal and succumbs to the rhythms of Manhattan is delightful. His face and limbs twitching responsively to the cadences of human traffic and daily commerce, Mr. Racey's Lucky eventually falls off the wagon with the irresistible élan of a true dance-aholic.
And in the climactic pas de deux between Mr. Racey and Ms. Lemenager, performed against a wall of mirrors to the show's title song, there's a hint of the rhapsodic grace that made a whole generation believe, if only for a minute or two, that dancing was better than sex. If you squint, you can even believe that Mr. Racey and Ms. Lemenager are worthy substitutes for Fred and Ginger. By that point, though, you should be well beyond having to squint.
The new musical "Never Gonna Dance" really only comes alive when it's dancing, but that's not unexpected: The show aims to reproduce the swirling, old-fashioned, showstopping charm of a dance- happy Fred and Ginger musical. Sometimes it even succeeds.
"Never Gonna Dance" arrives at the Broadhurst, where it opened last night, on the same wave of nostalgic optimism that brought us the revival of "Wonderful Town," another old-fashioned New York musical that sets out to remind us that it's still possible to have fun when times are tough and this town is tougher. Taking its inspiration from the 1936 movie "Swing Time," the production makes for an uneven evening, alternating between pleasantly entertaining and flatly synthetic. But every time you're ready to throw in the towel, the stage lights up with another cheerily upbeat dance number.
Those routines come courtesy of choreographer Jerry Mitchell, the Broadway regular ("Hairspray," "Gypsy") who's clearly having a ball playing in the dance idioms of the era. There's a floating-on-air glamour to his romantic numbers, and the full-cast extravaganzas, if not quite executed with the geometric precision we remember from those old movies, have their fair share of easy, contagious joy.
With a score of reliably swell tunes drawn from the songbook of Jerome Kern (the lyrics are by everyone from Hammerstein to Gershwin to Mercer to Wodehouse), it's a shame the book remains mostly a thudding distraction from the moments when the music takes over. The story -- about a young hoofer who makes a bet, wins a fortune and falls in love by following his lucky quarter through New York City -- could attain a certain brand of hokey delight, but the dialogue (by Jeffrey Hatcher) is far better at being hokey than being delightful.
Our two lead characters, Lucky and Penny, are blandly clean-cut creations, and performers Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager, while they sing well and are perfectly genial, don't have quite enough personality as actors to balance their characters' lack of it. But really, it's the dancing that matters, and they're both supple and skilled in that department. Even if we don't much believe that Lucky and Penny are in love, when Racey and Lemenager dance together, we do.
"Never Gonna Dance" also boasts a strong bench of supporting players, including Peter Gerety, who has a gravel-throated and battered charm as a bum who makes good, and Karen Ziemba as a woman who works with Penny at a dance studio. (Ziemba mostly seems underutilized in a straight-woman role, but the second act does give her a few chances to show off her goofy appeal, especially in the shimmying second act opener.) There's also Deidre Goodwin and Eugene Fleming, who have a sexy, physically mismatched chemistry as Lucky and Penny's competitors in a dance contest.
Director Michael Greif hasn't helped his actors make as much as they could of the book's alleged comedy (both Peter Bartlett, as the queeny studio owner, and David Pittu, as a Latin singer, are resoundingly unfunny in over-the-top performances), but he always knows when to get out of the way of the choreography. Set designer Robin Wagner effects a few nifty stage transformations, even if her art-deco flavored sets are sometimes too flat to evoke much atmosphere, and costume designer William Ivey Long has lots of stylish, high-waisted fun with the colorful period outfits.
The show, with its invocation of toe-tapping Grand Central rhythms and its pas-de-deux on cloud-skimming construction girders, traffics in the sort of corniness that's kind of sweet when it works, or just limp when it doesn't. But every time the dance manages to attain that good-natured glow, there's enough beaming energy on stage to provoke a smile from even the grumpiest of us.
The best thing that can be said about Never Gonna Dance, the new musical that opened Thursday at Broadway's Broadhurst Theatre, is that it's not true to its title.
In fact, it's only when this homage to composer Jerome Kern is up and on its feet that it commands our attention. Luckily, since the show is based on the 1936 Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers vehicle Swing Time, that's often enough.
Dance is not bound by the film classic that inspired it, though. Jeffrey Hatcher's book gently, affectionately winks at convention as it follows a young hoofer, Lucky, who travels to New York hoping to prove to his future father-in-law that he can make a small fortune without relying on his dancing shoes. Lucky's plans are foiled when he meets another woman, Penny, who becomes his partner in a big-league dance contest.
The list of songs accompanying this giddy journey reach beyond the Kern/Dorothy Fields tunes featured in Swing Time to include collaborations with such other noted lyricists as Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer and Oscar Hammerstein II. Harold Wheeler's sharp, vibrant orchestrations ensure that Kern's divine melodies sound at once fresh and authentic to the period.
But the most valuable player in this game is Jerry Mitchell, whose work in recent hits such as Hairspray and Sam Mendes' revival of Gypsy has established him as Broadway's leading choreographer of the moment. In Mitchell's hands, I Won't Dance and Shimmy With Me become the kind of exhilarating production numbers that can make the most lethargic or uncoordinated spectators yearn to trip the light fantastic.
Better still, Mitchell has crafted routines for Lucky and Penny that nod to Fred and Ginger, but also accommodate the unique talents of Dance's young stars, Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager. Racey's spry, athletic style actually evokes Gene Kelly more than Astaire, but Mitchell also brings out his underlying elegance. And Lemenager is allowed to project a blend of old-fashioned sweetness and contemporary sass, which jibes with her wholesome but hardly quaint reading of Penny.
Neither Lemenager nor Racey have strong voices, but the ever-able Karen Ziemba is on hand, as Penny's best pal, to lend resonance to gems such as I Got Love and The Song Is You. Peter Gerety affably plays a former Wall Street tycoon reduced to a lovable bum by the Depression, and Eugene Fleming and Deidre Goodwin offer more comic relief, and fancy footwork, as Lucky and Penny's rivals in the competition.
Not all of the jokes fly, just as some of the singing falls flat, literally and figuratively. But so long as Never Gonna Dance stays on its toes, it never drags.
Broadway is positively awash in singing, dancing love letters to New York. The kids at "42nd Street" are still tapping their way to fame and fortune, and wholesome little "Thoroughly Modern Millie" continues to foil those bad guys and find romance eight times a week. More recently, two sisters from Ohio hit the city like a ton of fireworks in "Wonderful Town." Now comes "Never Gonna Dance," another peppy musical about kids from the sticks who find the Gotham streets paved with gold. Clearly, there's nothing better than being an eager youngster arriving in the city with a dream in your heart and taps on your shoes. Just so long as it's 1935 or thereabouts.
All the competition could mean trouble for the new cheerleader on the squad. "Never Gonna Dance," a stage adaptation of the beloved Fred-and-Ginger picture "Swing Time," doesn't have a galvanizing star performance at its center, as does "Wonderful Town," and it hasn't got the name-brand title "42nd Street" can boast. It's a pretty and pleasant musical in the neoretro tradition that has become one of Broadway's more reliable genres in recent years. It has plenty of rapturous dancing, courtesy of the Street's golden-boy choreographer of the moment, Jerry Mitchell, and an abundance -- maybe an overabundance -- of Jerome Kern tunes. But the overall effect is on the bland side, and somewhat synthetic -- the show twinkles along amiably but only rarely dazzles.
The recipe being used here was invented by the 1992 musical "Crazy for You," which took a basic plot and the score from an old Gershwin musical ("Girl Crazy"), concocted a new book from the bones of the old one, tossed in songs harvested from other pastures and, thanks to director Mike Ockrent and a little-known choreographer named Susan Stroman, created theatrical magic. Ockrent and Stroman set the bar high, and it's possible "Never Gonna Dance" would shine more brightly if it wasn't set beside that gem. But it's hard to ignore the fact that the formula isn't producing the same spectacular results.
The musical's plot concerns the travails of young hoofer Lucky Garnett (Noah Racey), whose marriage to a Pennsylvania society gal is stopped at the altar, essentially for lack of funds. Lucky heads to the city in search of 25 grand, after being admonished by fiancee's papa to give up dancing -- or else.
This sets up the show's most inventive number, set in Grand Central Station. Fresh off the train, Lucky desperately tries to tame his limbs' pesky yen for syncopation. But the city just won't let him: The rhythmic stacking of newspapers, the tapping toes of impatient secretaries waiting for a cup of joe, the song of a hot dog vendor -- they all conspire to entice his anxious feet into motion. Racey's determined efforts to slap stillness into his rebellious appendages is a lovely bit of physical comedy, but of course the rhythm wins out, and soon Lucky is leading the population in a rousing tap number set to the tune of "I Won't Dance," one of the many Kern tunes imported to shore up the half-dozen songs written (with Dorothy Fields) for the movie. ("I Won't Dance" actually figured in another Fred and Ginger picture, "Roberta.")
This thrilling number, revealing Racey as a dancer of expansive grace and a seemingly unstoppable itch to get airborne, is hard to top -- and you begin to suspect the musical's creators know as much, since it carries on past the point of exhilaration and threatens to exhaust us. What follows never quite reaches those heights again, although there are more pleasures sprinkled amid the strained comic developments of the narrative.
Mitchell's choreography is the backbone of the show, and this versatile dance-maker, whose credits include the concurrently running "Hairspray" and "Gypsy," pays affectionate tribute to the classic dances from the Astaire and Rogers movies without obvious borrowing. His most enchanting dance for the show's young stars, Racey and Nancy Lemenager, takes place atop an unfinished skyscraper (never mind what they're doing up there), with Lucky and Lemenager's Penny Carroll leaping from beam to beam to the tune of Kern and Fields' immortal "The Way You Look Tonight." Their final pas de deux is the closest the musical comes to outright imitation of the picture. Set to the title tune (at one point the movie's title, too), it expresses in gestures both gentle and tempestuous their sensual attraction and desperation at having to part. Throughout, Mitchell amplifies the theatricality of the classic Astaire-Rogers dynamics with more classical figurations elegantly integrated into the dances.
It's not an easy task to follow in the fleet footsteps of Fred and Ginger, of course. Racey and Lemenager are both terrific dancers who can sing as well as, if not better than, their famous forebears. But that ineffable thing called chemistry, which was, after all, what gave the dramatically flimsy Astaire & Rogers pictures their allure, isn't really in evidence here.
Racey is a genial charmer, but Lemenager is handicapped by book author Jeffrey Hatcher's reconception of her character. Instead of an archetypal Rogers heroine, a tough-shelled dame with a gooey center, Penny has been reconstructed as a standard-issue ingenue, all sweetness. Maybe she's been watered down so someone can logically sing Kern and Johnny Mercer's "I'm Old Fashioned" -- but the tradeoff is hardly worth it.
In other respects, Hatcher's book is a clever if laborious expansion of the original story. As Lucky finds himself falling in love with Penny, a dance instructor he meets when she absconds with his lucky quarter, he tries to avoid racking up that lump sum that will oblige him to return to his fiancee. While Penny and Lucky prepare for a big amateur dance contest, Lucky's pal Morgenthal, a tramp who used to be a stockbroker (played with grumpy warmth by Peter Gerety), tries to outrun Lucky's financial good fortune. Hatcher's wisecracks infuse the musical with little flecks of winking irony: Morgenthal tries to lose Lucky's money by investing in such hopeless schemes as a national chain of coffee shops. Peter Bartlett's flamboyantly sour turn as Penny's boss (Pangborn, he's called) is another knowing contemporary touch.
Karen Ziemba plays Penny's worldly wise pal Mabel, paired off with Morgenthal, and she's a welcome presence even in an underwritten role. (This one, too, has less bite than the movie equivalent, played by the wonderfully sour Helen Broderick.) She gets to strut her stuff in the second act, leading the kids in a festive, little-known Kern and P.G. Wodehouse tune, "Shimmy With Me," and then exhorting Penny to reach for the moon, romantically speaking, with "I Got Love." She supplies the show with a welcome jolt of plain personality whenever she's onstage.
Personality, in fact, is surprisingly absent from the contributions of some of the creative team. Robin Wagner reproduces classic Gotham iconography in handsome but uninspired ways, and William Ivey Long's costumes, which occasionally quote from the Fred-and-Ginger canon, are likewise lovely to look at without being memorable. Director Michael Greif, tackling a big Broadway musical for the first time since "Rent," turns in a technically impeccable performance without placing any personal stamp on the material.
With musicals based on movies proliferating like mushrooms, it was natural, perhaps inevitable, that the owners of the RKO catalog would seek to capitalize on the beloved Astaire and Rogers legacy. But "Never Gonna Dance" proves the translation isn't as easy as it might seem. It was not the farcical romantic plots, the scores or even the dance steps themselves that drew audiences to these movies in huge numbers. It was the one element that cannot handily be reproduced: the indescribable magic that occurred whenever Fred took Ginger by the hand and whirled her onto the floor.