There are just two things wrong with "Grind": the book and the songs. More' the pity, for the lavish musical that opened last night at the Hellinger is peopled with likable and accomplished performers, chief among them the enormously winning Ben Vereen, whose spiffy second-act solo dance is capped by an inspired growl of a tribute to Louis Armstrong.
About that dance, and a couple of others that are the cumbersome musical's chief assets: It has been no secret along Broadway that "Grind," in serious trouble out of town, gained the assistance of Bob Fosse (uncredited in the program) in touching up a few dance numbers, among them that dandy Vereen solo. Just as that controlled sensuality that is his trademark coils and uncoils in the star's happy dance, there is no mistaking the Fosse hand in the imaginative second-act opening in which the strippers are seen langorously dressing for their act, or in the opening female ensemble.
But these pleasures, like the rest of the show, have almost nothing to do with the time and place, 1933 Chicago during, but not at, that city's "Century of Progress" exposition.
Fay Kanin's book, derived from an unproduced screenplay of hers, envisions a lowdown black-and-white burlesque house - "separate stages and separate dressing rooms," proprietor Lee Wallace stoutly insists. But though there are white comedy routines and black "stripper" ones (there's no actual nudity), we get the impression of constant intermingling backstage in Clarke Dunham's massive set whose four turntables show us, among other scenes, a four-tiered backstage that looks like nothing so much as a row of exposed tenements, the stage itself with runway, and an alley scene leading away from the stage door.
Beyond this, instead of settling for what might have been an entertaining and affecting genre piece along the lines of "One Mo' Time" and its harsher cousin "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "Grind" mixes colors inconclusively (albeit with a hopeful closing message) by having black ingenue-stripper Leilani Jones, sought after by burley star Vereen, fall (but not all the way) for a white vagrant (Timothy Nolen) who looks for all the world like Sweeney Todd wandered into the wrong show.
All of this matters, of course, along with giving a fine gospel singer (Carol Woods) a chance to sing out during a funeral ceremony following the suicide of one of the burley comics. What matters less is Larry Grossman's score, which keeps churning along bravely but dispiritedly, going through the motions to lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh that might possibly win by a point or two over those of Ellie Greenwich.
Musicals are necessarily a collaborative effort, but this stew riddled with stale jokes and gags - I'm referring not just to the burley routines, but to the dialogue as well - gives the appearance of a work by committee. And handed such stuff, what chance have top banana Stubby Kaye and his stooge Joey Faye to shine? Or Leilani Jones to do more than look pretty and life her voice in one promising ballad ("All Things to One Man"), killed by the lyric? Or Timothy Nolen, as the Irish bum reduced to drunkenness by the loss of his wife and child until he is reformed by Jones, except to display a fine baritone in a couple of numbers, the first in Irish Tin-Pan-Alleyese? Or what chance has anybody when a gang of toughs (chorus boys, of course) being shouting "nigger lover" from the aisles?
Harold Prince has staged the book sensibly enough, even taking into account all those iron spiral staircases and cubbyhole dressing rooms on various levels. Florence Klotz has dressed the show to the nines, and Ken Billington has lighted it as if it were the truly major musical Broadway has been waiting for all season.
"Grind," overlong and unsure of itself and wearing, undermines its noble performers at practically every turn, except those few dance turns.
What turns Grind, which opened last night at the Mark Hellinger Theater, into an unexpectedly bumpy, seat-belted night? A sad concatenation of circumstances. But that's no answer.
Then take if you will a burlesque of burlesque. Make it into a star turn for certified star Ben Vereen, and a fresh concept for certified conceptualizer-director Harold Prince. Flash it up and flesh it out into a fairly gaudy Broadway show.
Now imagine what might have happened if Sweeney Todd had met the Sugar Babies and they all got together in a rousing, gospel-style chorus of We Shall Overcome.
Perhaps this gives some idea of the infirmity of purpose and general muddlement plaguing this ambitious, and in some ways innovative, almost despairingly innovative, new musical.
Grind is obviously intended to work on many levels. Unfortunately it doesn't really work on any of them. Indeed it falls through levels as if it thought they were stools.
However the basic fault is that there is too much book chasing, too little music - or, at best, too little noticeable music.
The book by Fay Kanin is confused - not so much in narrative line, that is clear and straight enough, but in dramatic purpose. It keeps on trying to chew up more than it can bite.
The time is Chicago. 1933. Depression. Harry Earle's Burlesque Theater. It is - in a segregated sense - bi-racial. The comics - apart from Leroy, played by Vereen - are white, while the strippers are black.
On stage, and backstage in their dressing rooms, black and white are separated to comply with some city ordinance. Inside the theater is all the tawdry tinsel, tossing tassels, and banana skins of burlesque rampant. Outside the stage door are drunken bums looking for the soup kitchens to open.
This is just the background. When Miss Kanin's book gets going, it comes down on the plot like a library.
One sad old comic, Gus (Stubby Kaye), keeps on impaling successive stooges through shortsightedness. Desperately needing a new stooge, he goes outside the stage door and picks up the nearest derelict, Doyle (Timothy Nolen).
Doyle is Irish. And he drinks to forget. What he is forgetting is that he is a former IRA terrorist, who in his efforts to blow things up during the troubles, blew up a train carrying, by chance, his own wife and son.
Leroy, the only black Top Banana in the show, finds himself falling in love with Satin (Leilani Jones), but by now Satin has fallen in love with Doyle.
Gus, whose eyesight has become so bad that he walks off into the scenery, realizes that he is washed up, and thereupon shoots himself in the wings. Everyone is cut up about this, particularly Doyle, who goes out on a bender, but is saved by Satin, who takes him back to her home.
We now have the very real prospect of miscegenation - which was pretty rough in Chicago, 1933. Satin is attacked on stage by rowdy elements in the audience who disapprove of her white liaison - as indeed does the rejected Leroy.
But at the end the white and black performers realize they must fight together, and this little burlesque house becomes a true symbol of racial togetherness. This struck me as unlikely.
Now I am not saying all this couldn't have been made into a movie. I am saying that the whole story is more complicated than Rigoletto in Serbo-Croat on a foggy night, and that Larry Grossman, the composer of Grind, is no Verdi. The lyrics, moreover, by Ellen Fitzhugh, may fitz Hugh but don't really fitz the music.
The burlesque routines are not very well done - Kaye does have one properly stylish joke about a thermometer - the stripping is made comic but not comic enough, and the social significance hangs gloomily over the show like a belt of low pressure.
The real failure is Grossman's music. This will sometimes imitate burlesque; sometimes, for the benefit of the bomb-hurling Doyle it will suggest Sweeney Sondheim. But most of the time it imitates little and suggests nothing. It just lies there like a blanket.
Prince does a great job. He has always appreciated a directorial challenge, and he grabs up this show's heavy gauntlet with gallant alacrity.
With the formidable assists of Clarke Dunham's handsome multi-revolving set, which whirls frontstage, backstage, and offstage with unstressed virtuosity, and Florence Klotz's gorgeously fantasticated costumes, Prince goes to town, but gets lost somewhere on the way.
The performers, not unnaturally, do their very solid best. The all-characterized, all-singing, all-dancing, all-acting chorus line is terrific, as is the lovely Miss Jones as the warm-hearted fan dancer.
Mr. Vereen, with only one really big solo spot - conventionally choreographed by Lester Wilson - seemed unexpectedly subdued. Kaye, having to show more pathos than panache, and a wasted Joey Faye, both tried to suggest the burlesque spirit, as did Sharon Murray.
Nolen looked, understandably, as if he had walked into the wrong stage door, found himself in the wrong show, and decided to tough it out. It was not his fault.
The hit with the audience was the lovely gospel-style singing of Carol Woods, whose voice transfixed a show in sore need of transfixing.
Some advertisements said: "Grind as in Bump and Grind." I think it might unfortunately be Grind as in teeth, or even ground.
For most of Act I, it is nearly impossible to figure out the real ambitions of ''Grind,'' the new musical that the director Harold Prince has brought to the Mark Hellinger. But as we discover when ''Grind'' grinds to its halt just before intermission, ignorance at this show is bliss. An enormous amount of show biz expertise, some of it striking and inventive, has been lavished on this gargantuan enterprise, and, as long as its creators' intentions remain cloudy, the sheer rush of imaginative activity churns up a strange air of mystery. We don't really know what's happening, but, for a while, there's so much to watch that we don't really care.
That mysterious aura is most splendidly established by the setting, which, as designed by Clarke Dunham and lighted by Ken Billington, is as eerie as the House of Usher before the fall. The time is 1933, and the place is a Chicago burlesque house whose black and white performers are kept rigidly segregated onstage and off. Mr. Dunham's towering set can twirl to reveal the theater's gaudy marquee and facade, its stage, its wings, and its several flights of gloomy, clutter-filled dressing rooms. The labyrinthan backstage area suggests a teeming slum - as if Catfish Row had been plunked down in a Reginald Marsh painting of a Depression movie palace.
Soon we're watching the performers who slave at this theater, and their acts also have a bleak, intriguing edge. When the lovely Leilani Jones steps out on a light-ringed runway for a striptease, there's no joy in her routine; her face is as blank as a prostitute's, and the nasty gait of her Larry Grossman-Ellen Fitzhugh song forecloses any eroticism. Ben Vereen, as a song-and-dance headliner, suddenly breaks out of a standard chorus-line number for a private psychological soliloquy. The show's baggy-pants clown, Stubby Kaye, performs a vintage doctor-patient sketch that seems to lose its nerve at every punch line.
Mr. Prince knits these arresting incidents together with more assurance than he's mustered in any of his musicals since ''Sweeney Todd.'' As was also true of ''Sweeney Todd,'' an undertow of anger ripples beneath every song, scene and performance. But why? For the first hour or so, almost nothing happens in Kay Fanin's book. Miss Jones rejects Mr. Vereen's invitation for a date. Mr. Kaye, having lost his act's straight man, recruits a new one - a down-and-out Irish immigrant played by Timothy Nolen. This is hardly the stuff to justify the musical's urgent tone of barely suppressed rage.
But the supposed justification comes abruptly and retroactively with the Act I finale - and, as the wave of anger finally crests, the show's insinuating atmosphere turns torpid, its mystery evaporates into banality. At last forced to reveal its hand, ''Grind'' brings on a gang of anonymous white toughs to assault the black characters on a street corner. The intermission arrives as Mr. Vereen returns to the burlesque stage to go on, bitterly, with his show.
The ironic juxtaposition of the entertainer's escapist act with the racial violence beyond the theater's walls is all too heavily didactic - and all too familiar. Substitute 1930's Berlin for 1930's Chicago, Jewish victims for black ones and Joel Grey for Mr. Vereen, and you have a replay of Mr. Prince's ''Cabaret.'' This time, however, the cataclysm seems thrown in for easy theatrical effect, rather than arrived at dramatically, and the accompanying moral seems gratuitious, not to mention self-righteous. Surely it's overkill to erect as huge an edifice as ''Grind'' to tell us that life wasn't all a cabaret in the urban America of 1933.
From then on, the show disintegrates into similarly contrived and disjointed melodramatic events, accompanied by similarly tired messages. Act II offers a violent interracial love triangle, a suicide, an account of a terrorist bombing overseas, and, for a finale, a large-scale race riot engulfing the auditorium. Mrs. Kanin's aspirations are honorable: She apparently sees the show's setting as a metaphor large enough to contain a compressed history of American racial conflicts, with both the civil rights and black separatist movements thrown in along the way. But a burlesque house built exclusively on metaphor cannot stand. By failing to give her characters much definition in Act I, the writer robs their various tragedies of all impact in Act II. If the people of ''Grind'' don't engage each other or the audience, how can we care about either them or the larger themes they represent?
As the musical leans on history to lend significance to soap-opera developments, so it increasingly leans on other musicals to find a style. Broadway's previous quasi-Brechtian treatments of vaudeville and burlesque (''Gypsy,'' ''Follies,'' ''Chicago'') are all accounted for - and, eventually, Mr. Nolen, who played Sweeney Todd at the City Opera this season, sings a grim autobiographical epiphany, preposterous in this context, that could well belong to that demon barber of Fleet Street. By the time Mr. Vereen performs a tucked-elbow solo strut reminiscent of his last Broadway turn in Bob Fosse's ''Pippin,'' the show has become a desperate barrage of arbitrary musical numbers, portentous staging devices, extravagant costumes (gloriously designed by Florence Klotz), confused plot twists and sociological bromides. In form and content alike, ''Grind'' flattens out to become Broadway's answer to Francis Coppola's ''Cotton Club.''
One could weep for the talent that is expended to so little cumulative effect. Mr. Prince and his choreographer, Lester Wilson, open Act II with a haunting dressing-room sequence in which a half-dozen strippers slowly warm up in the dim light, sadly don their costumes and segue into their nightly dance routine. Like Miss Fitzhugh's lyric for the title song earlier on, the interlude gives rueful life - but only brief life - to the show's subsidiary point that grind-show performers are never free of the brutal daily grind that they allow their Depression audiences to escape.
Miss Fitzhugh's lyrics are usually accomplished, but they can't plug the holes in Mrs. Kanin's characters. Mr. Grossman's music, if never remotely matching its John Kander and Stephen Sondheim prototypes, is far superior to his work for Mr. Prince's ''Doll's Life.'' Though the score is often carried by Bill Byers's rip-roaring orchestrations and Paul Gemignani's crack band, there is an affecting pastiche Harold Arlen torch song for Miss Jones, a lively Sophie Tucker-style comic number for the belter Sharon Murray and a rousing gospel funeral peroration gorgeously sung by Carol Woods. (Never mind that a character is killed off gratuitously to justify that funeral.)
The stars work hard, with mixed results. Mr. Vereen rarely persuades us that he's the callow rake or, later, the fist-raising firebrand that he's claimed to be, but he's tireless in his attempts to provide ingratiating showmanship. Miss Jones, in her Broadway debut, is a find - a gifted young performer lacking only a little flash. Although Mr. Nolen has a beautiful voice, his acting skills are too rudimentary to bring off the musical's one truly demanding role - that of a mystery man who changes identity in almost every scene.
Mr. Kaye, still hardy 35 years after he made his name in ''Guys and Dolls,'' is the very embodiment of the old-time trooper he plays. In an early number, he touchingly describes that noble professionalism that propels entertainers to go out and do a show, no matter what goes wrong onstage or off. ''I Get Myself Out'' is the song's title, and its spirit bleeds through the entire evening. For all that's gone wrong with ''Grind,'' one never stops admiring the valor with which Mr. Prince and company get themselves out there and give it all they've got.