Simply put, "Dance a Little Closer" is a chilly, charmless and foolhardy musical. The Alan Jay Lerner-Charles Strouse show, which came to the Minskoff last night, lacks more than the Lunts, who gave its source (Robert E. Sherwood's 1936 Pulitzer Prize play, "Idiot's Delight") such inimitable style. It lacks sense.
Lerner, who, it seems, has wanted to adapt the Sherwood play for some time, has advanced it to "the avoidable future," which means, right off the bat, that this is a musical on the edge of a nuclear war. Harry Van - or Harry Aikens, as Lerner has renamed the song-and-dance-man hero for some reason - and his troupe of girl performers (here reduced to three) are now quarantined, along with other guests and the staff, in a hotel in the Austrian Alps because of a war scare. This time, though I'd supposed weaponry had grown too sophisticated for such maneuvers, Austria is bristling with NATO planes while Soviet troops are advancing through Czechoslovakia, and the Soviets are threatening to bomb the planes unless they're removed.
What can Harry and the others do about this? Why, dance and sing, of course, while Harry (Len Cariou) keeps harboring a suspicion that Cynthia (Liz Robertson), the slightly haughty "British" mistress of a Kissinger-like White House Mr. Fixit named Winkler (George Rose), is a onetime night club chantootise he slept with 10 years before in an Omaha fleabag and has been his dream girl ever since.
Add to this (also part of Lerner's "avoidable future"?) a kind of perfunctory ceremony in which an English cleric "blesses" the union of two gays, young men who appear to be stewards on the same plane and who have a song entitled "Why Can't the World Go and Leave Us Alone?" It's not their presence that's objectionable, but the cynical use made of them, extending to cheap wisecracks by Harry's girls who, by the way, have their own sweet song, "Homesick," which rather misses its satirical mark by longing references to such all-American phenomena as the Love Canal, San Andreas Fault, and Burger Kings, though Lerner should surely be aware that the latter are to be found right in the heart of Paris if not already in the Alps.
Ironically, while Lerner's book - which he has also, and probably unwisely, directed himself - is a generally disagreeable patchwork, and his lyrics show signs of strain, Strouse has composed some of his better scores. And if the entire show were a little closer to the lovely title song (Lerner's lyric perfectly matches the delightful tune here), it might have had a chance.
The deadening influence of the book is strongest, of course, where the leads are concerned: Cariou, a good actor with a usually acceptable singing voice (he was suffering from laryngitis at the final preview), brings some dash to the part of the song-and-dance man, but not without visible effort and a smug air. As for Robertson, who portrays the fake and ladylike British mistress (who can ever forget Lynn Fontanne in this role, which then was that of a phony Russian princess?), she is an attractive brunette and moves well but exhibits little personality, though it should be noted that the sound system at the Minskoff makes everybody sound tinny.
Rose brings his familiar professionalism and sense of style to the role of the American diplomat with a German accent, and is engagingly sly singing his song of farewell, "Auf Wiedersehen," to the hotel, when the border has been opened finaly, and to his mistress, who can't hear him because she's still upstairs packing. I.M. Hobson is well cast as the vicar who "marries" off the two gays after delivering a self-searching number called "I Don't Know." Most of the smaller roles are ably handled, too, though Sherwood's impassioned young protester, Quillery, has been reduced here to a mere hothead quickly disposed of.
Lerner's staging of his book, given his neglect of its deficiencies, is adequate, and the same may be said for Billy Wilson's staging of the musical numbers, along with a few dance steps, including a brief pas-de-deux (Harry's imagination at work) on a catwalk calling to mind the scenic device used in recent Harold Prince musicals.
David Mitchell has created a flexible set allowing for "dissolves" from the main hotel lobby-lounge with its long stairway, particularly for a scene in that Omaha hotel room with, as Cynthia sings in her song about "Another Life," an iron bed and "window boxes where nothing grows." Donald Brooks has created lots of flashy costumes, including some rich-looking fur ones, and Thomas Skelton has lighted the show well.
"Idiot's Delight," by the fervent, concerned Sherwood and with the Lunts to lend it humor and enormous style, was never suitable material for a musical, and all Lerner has done is prove it with this avoidable one.
How close can you get to a hit? And how far away it is! The new Alan Jay Lerner-Charles Strouse musical Dance a Little Closer, which opened at the Minskoff Theater last night, goes off at all the wrong times in all the wrong places. It looks like a good idea half-baked. It is based by Lerner on Robert E. Sherwood's 1936 romantic comedy, Idiot's Delight, which originally starred the Lunts and won a Pulitzer Prize.
Set then in a hotel in the Italian Alps, and prophesying all too accurately the start of World War II, it was Sherwood's most powerful and most graceful political statement. A seedy cabaret artist rediscovers a lost love in the fake Russian mistress of a munitions tycoon. In the end they are left to almost certain death, playing Onward, Christian Soldiers! in ragtime.
Lerner has updated the story, trying to make it relevant for today. This was probably his first mistake. It is a '30s story and should have been allowed to remain one. It could have had a great deal of nostalgic charm - instead Lerner tries, quite naively, to match Sherwood's white-hot topicality.
He provides us with a three-ring circus of themes, which criss and cross with self-defeating confusion. First we have the anti-war, anti-nuclear theme. It appears that just by Lerner's bright, modern hotel in the Austrian Alps - a sort of atrium surrounded by staircases and mountains - there is taking place what could well be a final confrontation between NATO and the Soviet Union. The bombers and the missiles are standing by. The Austrian border has been closed.
So much for theme No 1. Theme No. 2 is gay liberation. In Sherwood's English couple honeymooning. Lerner has replaced these with two gay airline pilots, who in that moment of world crisis want to declare their love by getting married, thus offering some embarrassment to a visiting Church of England bishop.
Finally there is the major theme of the love story itself. The hoofer Harry had his one-night stand in Omaha with Cynthia - now playing an English society lady rather than Sherwood's Romanoff princess - and romantically decides that this is the girl of his life. But the lady is tough and cynical and will not consider him until she has lost her rich lover. In both Sherwood and Lerner, it is an interesting role reversal, with the woman calling the shots rather than the man.
Lerner has updated his story zealously. When Harry's small team of chorines gets homesick we find they come from such places as Three Mile Island and Love Canal. That gaudy one-night stand in Omaha in Sherwood took place in the Governor Bryan Hotel; in Lerner it is the Ramada Inn.
But the most considerable update is the transformation of the munitions manufacturer (God's instrument, as he taught himself) into Dr. Josef Winkler, an Austrian-born American diplomat, apparently based on Dr. Henry Kissinger. Loosely, one imagines.
The music by Charles Strouse is effective, often tuneful, but uncentered. Most of it does have a '30s touch, a melodic expansiveness, which goes well with Lerner's wordy but usually adroit lyrics, but is not particularly well aligned with the updating of the theme.
We are now getting to the main cause of the musical's failure, despite its many incidental virtues. It doesn't seem to have been thought out carefully enough, or directed - Lerner directed it himself - firmly enough.
A great deal could have been done to have shaped Dance a Little Closer into sense and sensibility, but it just wasn't. What I saw looked like the over-rehearsed first preview of a tryout. The various stories went to the winds, the songs lay on the floor, and the actors wandered around doing their best but often looking like temporary help.
Of the three leading roles only George Rose is really well-cast as the Kissinger-figure, but even he is a shade too avuncular and kind. He is more convincing as a modestly ruthless sugar daddy than as a world class politician.
Len Cariou looks attractively battered as the small-time hoofer, but lacks show-biz dazzle, and his voice sounded in poor estate. Liz Robertson as Cynthia, is a sort of closet Julie Andrews. You could cut her accent with a knife, and perhaps she ought to. In fairness it is meant to be a fake English accent - but still. She sings pleasantly and Strouse has given her some nice ballads to sing.
The annoying thing is that from top to toe - from David Mitchell's elaborate setting, with an ice rink no less, and Donald Brooks' flashy and sometime attractive costumes - the whole show has gone subtly but awfully wrong. Everything about it could work, but nothing does. The final result is more frustrating than annoying - after you've finished you're waiting for more before you've really started. As a pleasure principle, that doesn't work.
Although ''Dance a Little Closer,'' the new musical at the Minskoff, numbs the audience with almost every step, I won't pretend that it didn't get to me. That happened just before the second act, when the able conductor, Peter Howard, led his band in a brief medley of the score. Listening to Charles Strouse's music, as lithely orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick, anyone can plainly hear that it contains some pretty melodies. Remembering some of the Alan Jay Lerner lyrics that accompany them - especially those for the romantic title song - I was reminded of why Mr. Lerner is one of our musical theater's top professionals. It's depressing to watch these men bury their gifts in a huge, extravagant mishmash that obviously took months of hard labor to produce.
In ''Dance a Little Closer,'' our sadness is crystallized by that Act II overture because it makes us realize that even this evening's good songs (others are not so good) don't realize their potential when performed in the show proper. And that's the final, incontrovertible proof of how far off track the whole enterprise is. ''Dance a Little Closer'' is one of those musicals that seems to have taken on a rampaging, self-destructive life of its own: an initially shaky premise is steadily dismantled by errors of judgment on all fronts.
The idea was to update Robert E. Sherwood's 1936 antiwar comedy, ''Idiot's Delight,'' to the nuclear age. Where Sherwood wrote about a grand Alpine hotel whose guests were trapped by ominous pre-World War II military maneuvers, Mr. Lerner's book places those guests in the midst of a potentially apocalyptic Western-Soviet confrontation set in ''the avoidable future.'' That aside, the plot of the musical is remarkably close to the original play's. It's the changes of structure, tone and characterization that turn a light parable into a dour, nonsensical lecture with songs.
The troubles start with the love story that develops between the leads - a small-time American entertainer, Harry (Len Cariou), and a mysterious European woman, Cynthia (Liz Robertson). It was Sherwood's teasing plot device that this couple may - or may not - have had a one-night stand years earlier. In Mr. Lerner's book, the suspense is resolved early with an Act I flashback to the previous liaison. After that the narrative is essentially over - but on the musical must go, often stalling ridiculously, to keep Harry and Cynthia from confronting a secret past that has already been revealed to the audience.
Worse, Mr. Lerner has turned the heroine into an outright courtesan - kept by a Henry Kissinger-like diplomat, played by George Rose. It's hard to know what Harry or we are supposed to like about her, but then it's even harder to know what Cynthia sees in Harry. As played with a Sweeney Todd scowl by Mr. Cariou, the hero is seedy and humorless. Mr. Cariou also seems to have misplaced his singing voice - a predicament that wreaks havoc on both the show's score and the credibility of his characterization of a cabaret song-and-dance man.
The secondary players are no less odd. Among the hotel guests are a caricatured homosexual couple who do a gratuitous ice-skating number in Act I - and are then rather condescendingly sanctified by another extraneous character, a minister, in an Act II psalm. It's impossible to know what to make of Harry's trio of back-up singers, who deliver a misbegotten comic ditty about Love Canal and Three Mile Island, or of an angry, gun-waving Austrian freedom fighter.
The message, meanwhile, is lost. Though Mr. Lerner wants to hit many worthwhile targets - from war-mongering governments to television commercials to Cynthia's crass materialism - his attacks are not funny or dramatic enough to sting. He mocks male chauvinism, yet presents nearly every woman in view as venal. The Kissinger gags are another missed opportunity. Mr. Rose, by far the show's most forceful performer, is never given the sharp material that might allow him to blossom into the Dr. Strangelove that's seemingly intended.
What should be the fearful immediacy of a nuclear Armageddon is dissipated both in the book (which calls off the bombs arbitrarily and anti-climactically early in Act II) and in Mr. Lerner's static staging. The cast usually either stands in ranks or reclines on low couches - hardly the postures of abject panic. Indeed, Act I closes and Act II opens on the sight of actors sitting down. There is much awkward waiting for entrances, exits and blackouts. Billy Wilson's primitive choreography in several neon-decorated dream sequences is strikingly reminiscent of his last show, ''Merlin.''
The antiseptic high-tech set - its cheap blond wood and smudged mirrory surfaces cramped beneath a barely used, ''Doll's Life'' catwalk - looks less like an Austrian mountain resort than the Ramada Inn in Omaha where Harry and Cynthia had their first fling. Let's forget that the esteemed David Mitchell designed it. Not having a firm period in mind, Donald Brooks provides a hodgepodge of costumes: He does well by the leading lady but seems to have a vendetta going against Mr. Cariou.
As for the attractive Miss Robertson, it's asking a lot that she carry both an entire production and an unsympathetic role in her Broadway debut. She has presence and a likable personality, but as yet undeveloped performing skills. Still, aside from Mr. Rose, she's the only cast member who brightens the stage; with more experience and training, she'll grow. One does hope that Mr. Lerner's threatened doomsday won't arrive before she can sing this show's lovelier songs in the happier circumstances both she and the songs deserve.