Based on 'Steel Pier,' the new musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb, you might imagine that marathon dancing was just another branch of show business during the Depression, like talkies or vaudeville.
People entered these grueling competitions because they would be fed as long as they endured and they might make a little money if they won. Nobody did it, as you might imagine from David Thompson's book for the musical, to advance a showbiz career.
Thompson's first act shows us Rita Racine (Karen Ziemba), a marathon champion who thinks the current one is her last. On the beach in Atlantic City, she meets Bill (Daniel McDonald), a handsome pilot who has decided to spend his leave at the marathon.
He has a crush on Rita, who is secretly married to Nick (Gregory Harrison), the sleazy guy who runs the marathon. But Nick has no intention of allowing his golden goose to retire.
The first act seems like a series of novelty numbers, as we get to know the competitors and their show business ambitions. The second suddenly turns serious. If the first act had put marathon dancing in an honest context, the complications of the second would not seem so artificial.
Without a solid structure, everything seems hollow. There are some beautiful songs, particularly "Songbird," a poignant evocation of '30s pop music, and "Leave the World Behind," another potent bit of nostalgia.
What is supposed to be the dramatic high point, however, a song for Rita called "Running in Place," is less an expression of Rita's desperation than that of the creators. Despite all of Ziemba's ferocious energy and talent, the song has no emotional impact because it is not built on anything.
The music is skillfully interwoven with the plot during the dance sequences, but it is at its most effective when it's pure show business, not when it attempts to give the plot some emotional substance.
The show's greatest asset is its hardworking cast. As Rita, Ziemba sings evocatively and makes the frenzied dancing touching rather than unnerving, which it could easily be.
Harrison (TV's Trapper John) is properly alienating as her scheming hubby, but it's a one-note role. As the flyboy, McDonald radiates enormous charm. So does Debra Monk, who has a showstopping number, "Everybody's Girl," full of burlesque gags, which she delivers juicily.
Susan Stroman's choreography has verve and style. The dancers execute her often intricate steps with enormous flair. Even when they're dragging each other around the floor in advanced states of exhaustion, they have a graceful, langoro us line.
Tony Walton's sets have a gauzy, dreamlike quality, which is more appropriate than we first realize. His subtle palette, greatly enhanced by Peter Kaczorowski's lighting, creates a forlorn carnival mood that captures the spirit of the period better than the material. William Ivey Long's costumes are extraordinarily inventive.
The subject of marathon dancing might have fueled a powerful musical; here, alas, the tireless cast too often seems to be dancing on empty.
Sally Bowles, it seems, was wrong. Life is not ''only a cabaret, old chum,'' as that feckless, fame-hungry chanteuse in Weimar once sang.
John Kander and Fred Ebb, the authors of the immortal title number of ''Cabaret,'' have now proposed an alternative view of existence in their dishearteningly fizz-free new show, ''Steel Pier,'' which opened last night at the Richard Rodgers Theater. It is apparently time to leave the party, the razzle-dazzle, the driving grind of show business, and go home to consider gentler, more spiritual matters.
''Steel Pier,'' which is set in the desperate honky-tonk world of marathon dancing in Atlantic City in 1933, is in a sense the anti-''Cabaret,'' or the anti-''Chicago,'' the 1975 Kander-Ebb hit now playing to packed houses in a revival just two blocks away. Both earlier works are pumped with the ambition-fed energy of performers who want to be top fish in a tank of piranhas, no matter what the cost.
Sally Bowles would have happily slept with Hitler if it could have won her a part in the movies; in ''Chicago,'' Roxie Hart quite literally murders her way to vaudeville stardom. Now meet Rita Racine, the more passive, ingenuous cousin of these ravenous song-and-dance gals, who is the heroine of ''Steel Pier.'' Sally and Roxie may want nothing so much as to see their names in lights, but Rita, a weary marathon dancer played by Karen Ziemba, just wants to settle down in a little cottage by the sea.
The difference between the winsome Rita and her more callous predecessors says everything about the informing sentiment of ''Steel Pier,'' which has a book by David Thompson and is directed by Scott Ellis. Despite its presentation of an assortment of starved, Depression-era souls eager to dance their way into public recognition (in the tradition of Sydney Pollack's film ''They Shoot Horses, Don't They?''), what sets the tone of the show is not the urge to make it but the urge to escape.
Accordingly, ''Steel Pier'' (the name refers to the seaside attraction where the marathon takes place) is steeped in wistfulness rather than showoff pushiness. Mr. Kander's able score, of course, has room for the gritty, locomotive thrust of the more spirited songs of the period. But the show's heart lies in the contrasting, ethereal sounds of chimes and rue-tinged ballads in which Mr. Ebb's lyrics spell out wan hopes for romance and domesticity. And when the work's title song, a pallid echo of ''Cabaret,'' promises, ''Life's a party: why don't you come to the Steel Pier?,'' it's not so much an invitation as a warning.
What energy this point of view generates is, unfortunately, largely negative. Mr. Kander and Mr. Ebb are simply more engaging when they're in a more cynical mood. The choreographer Susan Stroman, who conceived the story for the show with Mr. Ellis and Mr. Thompson, has provided some lovely dance numbers that find the kinetic poetry in physical exhaustion. And Ms. Ziemba, whose quality of middle-American normalcy is offset by her finely honed, sophisticated skills as a performer, is perfectly cast.
Yet the entire effort feels soft at the edges, and it never really finds its motor. It has an appealing supporting ensemble of actors (most notably Joel Blum and Valerie Wright playing a feisty brother-and-sister team) as the down-and-out contestants of the marathon.
But because they are such blatantly cautionary figures, they are ultimately a bunch of sad sacks. And the work seldom lets them cut loose into the fierce, attention-grabbing showmanship you long for. (When Debra Monk, as a lusty, hard-bitten marathon pro, sings ''Everybody's Girl,'' a solo laden with double-entendres, the audience goes wild; she overplays it, for sure, but at least she's vital.) Indeed, the production seems intent on muffling its own climaxes, ending each number in the equivalent of a sigh instead of a shout. Even its flashiest routine, a fantasy sequence that has a bevy of chorines in bathing suits dancing on the wings of an airplane (in a nod to ''Flying Down to Rio,'' the first of the Astaire-Rogers movies), trails off in a way that precludes hearty applause.
The overall dreamlike effect is hypnotic in the wrong ways; there's no center of energy to grab onto. The look of the show, which has sets by Tony Walton, costumes by William Ivey Long and lighting by Peter Kaczorowski, has an appropriately tawdry elegance, but it all seems about to evaporate any second, like Mr. Kander's tuneful but wispy melodies. The first act, correspondingly, passes by in a pleasant, polished blur; the second decomposes like a piece of wet tissue paper.
Disadvantageous comparisions to ''Chicago'' and, especially, ''Cabaret'' are inevitable. Like the 1966 stage production of the latter, ''Steel Pier'' has a mirrored central set, here representing the dance floor. And this microcosmic world is clearly meant to be a metaphor for a sick society.
Moreover, the competition is presided over by a slick-haired, oily-tongued master of ceremonies, here named Mick Hamilton and played by Gregory Harrison. The role seems intended to be central to the show in the way Joel Grey's M.C. was in ''Cabaret'' or Gig Young's in ''They Shoot Horses, Don't They?'' Mick is the evil genius of the evening, the false promise of the American dream incarnate, urging the contestants to dance into nervous collapse for a glimmer of glory.
Yet this M.C. (who is, by the way, married to Rita, whom he exploits with empty hopes of finally retiring from the marathon circuit) is also revealed to be a small-time bully. Snap your fingers at him, and he backs down. Mr. Harrison gives a smooth performance, but he lacks the compelling, darkly erotic aura the character requires.
Mick is set up in tidy opposition to the show's other male lead, Bill Kelly (Daniel McDonald), a handsome, enigmatic exhibition pilot who falls hard for Rita, his partner in the marathon. You're right in thinking there's something otherworldly about this fellow, whose presence tends to set off angel chimes and campy, harmonic celestial voices. Borrowed from vintage movie fantasies like ''Stairway to Heaven,'' he represents, as one of the show's songs baldly puts it, Rita's ''second chance'' at the life she wants.
This gossamer romance is the silver-lined counterpoint to the darkness of the dance contest, and it's obviously meant to allievate the standard-issue cynicism of yet another show about a marathon. Mr. McDonald radiates affability, and that's about all he can do in a role that is nothing more than a helpful plot device.
And while the show skirts the more blatant cliches of its dance-till-they-drop genre in its first half, it piles them on in the second, right up to a public nervous breakdown and the revelation that Ms. Monk's brassy character has a heart of gold.
One wants to fall in love with ''Steel Pier'' for so many reasons. It is, after all, one of the few book musicals in a season of pop operas, and its kind, open heart is a welcome relief from the push-button irony of most current shows.
Yet despite the flashes of grace and inventiveness in Ms. Stroman's choreography and the modest melodic appeal of the work's songs, ''Steel Pier'' is insulated by a fuzzy cover of blandness. For Mr. Kander and Mr. Ebb, devils obviously make better company than angels.
"Life's a party," the ensemble sings. "Why don't you come to the Steel Pier?" Audiences are almost dared not to add a silent "ol' chum" to the tail of that lyric, since the song, like so much else in "Steel Pier," unabashedly recalls an earlier moment in musical-theater history. The new tuner, with its score by John Kander and Fred Ebb --- who three decades ago entreated audiences to "come to the cabaret" --- may be a pastiche, but it's a skillful one that need offer no apologies for cribbing from the best.
Even with a first act that occasionally drags, the marathon-dancing "Steel Pier," directed by Scott Ellis, with book by David Thompson, might be the musical to beat in what's shaping up to be an artistically lackluster spring. Charming performances, choreography by Susan Stroman that cannily blends period steps with her trademark innovations, and some of Kander and Ebb's strongest writing in years overshadow whatever missteps this musical makes.
By turns dark and cheerfully old-fashioned, "Steel Pier" is set in an Atlantic City ballroom of 1933. The Depression-era craze of marathon dancing is in full swing, and an assortment of hopefuls have come together at the Steel Pier dance hall to compete for a $2,000 prize and a shot at showbiz fame. Although the squalid, desperate reality of these competitions isn't ignored, neither does it become the musical's focus as it did in the definitive marathon movie, "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?"
Instead, "Steel Pier" borrows a conceit from "Carousel" and countless romantic fantasies by having its hero return from the dead to woo his beloved. The sound of an airplane in distress opens the musical, and the first image is of the prone stunt pilot Bill Kelly (Daniel McDonald) rising to his feet, surrounded by an ensemble of white-clad ghostly dancers. "I've got three weeks," he says. "Just three weeks." (Early preview audiences apparently didn't catch on that the pilot was dead, and so the device has become a bit more clarified; still, the premise remains somewhat ambiguous until act two.)
As the action shifts to the dance hall, the pilot maneuvers to partner with Rita Racine (Karen Ziemba), a B-level vaudeville singer whose claim to fame is having kissed Lindbergh upon his landing. Bill, it seems, had won a contest for a date with Rita just before he crashed his plane, and has been given a three-week reprieve from death to collect his prize.
What neither Bill nor the other marathon dancers know is that Rita is secretly married to Mick Hamilton (Gregory Harrison), the sleazy marathon emcee who pulls strings to ensure Rita is the marathon winner.
The first act of the musical charts the pilot's dance-floor courtship of Rita, and introduces other marathon contestants: Shelby (Debra Monk), a bawdy, no-nonsense burlesque singer; Buddy and Bette Becker (Joel Blum and Valerie Wright), a brother-and-sister hoofer team; Johnny Adel (Timothy Warmen), a handsome former Olympic athlete, and his partner, the snobby Dora (Alison Bevan); and Happy and Precious McGuire (Jim Newman and Kristin Chenoweth), the requisite hicks.
Dancing on Tony Walton's eye-popping set --- a large rotunda lined with hundreds of light bulbs --- the couples enact their various dramas while showcasing Stroman's vibrant choreography. The dances range from the fox trot and tap to the Lindy Hop, and even within the constraints of the historical dance styles, Stroman works in her idiosyncratic touches: Listen to how the shuffling of the ghostly dancers in the first scene mimics the sound of ocean waves.
Still, the overlong first act does include a shade too much marathon dancing, slowing the progression of the plot. The musical doesn't fully come to life until Monk's knockout performance of "Everybody's Girl" late in act one. A bump-and-grind tribute to promiscuity, "Everybody's Girl" is the type of comic, show-stopping, character-defining number at which Kander and Ebb excel --- think "When You're Good to Mama" from "Chicago" --- and Monk plays it for all it's worth.
Another first-act song also recalls a "Chicago" number, but with lesser results: "A Powerful Thing," in which the emcee sings the praises of manipulation, lacks the punch of "Chicago's" "Razzle Dazzle."
The second act opens big and continues at a quicker, more satisfying pace. A dream sequence, "Leave the World Behind," in which a bevy of chorus girls tap-dance on the wings of a biplane (a la 1933's "Flying Down to Rio" pic) is a charmer, while Monk gets yet another chance in the spotlight with the wistful ballad "Somebody Older."
Monk's crowd-pleasing turn takes nothing away from the winning performances by the leads, McDonald and Ziemba. McDonald does the near-impossible by giving texture to a romantic male hero role that might otherwise have been the typical musical-theater bore. Ziemba accomplishes something just as noteworthy: Her character, although not above participating in a subterfuge for money, has the audience in her palm from the moment she walks onstage. Ziemba's big solo number in act two, a sort of jazz ballet called "Running in Place," is a so-so song that she raises to a higher level.
Harrison will surprise his TV fans with his fine singing voice, and he does well going against type --- at 46 he still has matinee-idol looks --- by playing the villain. Still, his performance (and the production) would be better served by an edgier, more menacing quality early on: Both his character and "Steel Pier" only gradually move beyond stretches of blandness. Ellis, whose best work arguably was the frothy revival of "She Loves Me," is particularly good at this musical's romantic elements, but seems less comfortable with the darker strains of Thompson's book.
The rest of the cast is fine, particularly Newman and Chenoweth as the yokels who wise up fast. All benefit from William Ivey Long's attractive costumes (the women don cellophane gowns for a publicity-stunt wedding), and Peter Kaczorowski's lighting design glides the action and mood from carnival atmosphere to otherworldly ambience. "Steel Pier" itself doesn't always glide so smoothly, but it has the stamina and heart to win any marathon.