Los Angeles Theater Preview: STEEL PIER (Musical Theatre West in Long Beach)

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by Tony Frankel on November 19, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

KANDER & EBB’S DANCE MARATHON MUSICAL FINALLY ARRIVES IN LOS ANGELES

I can understand why you hear about a “Staged Reading” and want to bolt in the opposite direction. Don’t let that title fool you. Indeed, in the last year, some of the best nights in the theater can be found at these events. Especially with Musical Theatre West, which offers one-night only concerts of rarely-produced musicals (well, mostly; How to Succeed and Brigadoon are coming up later in the season). With Broadway performers, an orchestra, and choreography, you won’t even notice the minimal costumes, no sets, and that scripts are in hand for the dialogue (an Equity rule).

Even with “problematic” musicals such as Where’s Charley? and Busker Alley, MTW proved they know how to enhance the golden nuggets so that any slag is rendered unnoticeable. This makes the next offering on Sunday, November 23, one of the most exciting selections I could imagine: Kander & Ebb’s 1997 Broadway outing, Steel Pier. To my knowledge, it has never been performed in L.A., and it is more Musical Theatre West LOGOthan likely you will not see it produced here—it would simply be too expensive.

1997 was a tough time on the Great White Way. Four of the season’s most promising adventures—Titanic, Steel Pier, The Life, and Side Show (which just re-opened re-envisioned on Broadway this week) all got mixed reviews and lost money. Titanic ran the longest, but Steel Pier lasted all of two months and four days. It seems Mssrs. Kander and Ebb went for sentimentality, and their loyal followers seemingly preferred more darkness behind the musical comedy, such as in their Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman. OK, the score isn’t their best work and may lack the usual swath of hummable tunes, but it’s really terrific. In addition, the songsmiths’ work here is still better than current crop of over-promoted, underwhelming musical comedy blather.

steel pier original program 1997Set in an Atlantic City ballroom of 1933, Steel Pier still finds darkness within its chirpily old-fashioned context. The Depression-era craze of marathon dancing is in full swing, and a hodge-podge of hopefuls have amassed at the Steel Pier dance hall to vie for a $2,000 prize and a shot at showbiz fame. The dirty, desperate reality of these competitions is not the musical’s focus, but neither is it ignored, especially given the ghost story aspect á la Carousel.

David Thompson’s bittersweet book concerns Rita Racine (Leslie Stevens from B’way’s La Cage and TV’s True Blood), a reluctant dance marathon participant run by her husband Mick Hamilton Steel Pier - original playbill interior(Gabriel Kalomas from the Les Miz tour). Their marriage is kept a secret from the public for business reasons, which creates a problem when Racine falls unreciprocally in love with one of her dance partners, stunt pilot Bill Kelly (Jeff Edgerton of B’way’s Parade), who encourages her to break free of her imprisoning routine and follow her muse.

Expect one of the most knockout casts imaginable. Mick’s sidekick Mr. Walker will be played by Jeffrey Landman (B’way’s Les Miz). Other marathon contestants are a bawdy, no-nonsense burlesque singer Shelby (Tracy Lore, Ovation winner for MTW’s Young Frankenstein); a brother-and-sister hoofer team Buddy and Bette Becker (Marc Montminy, MTG’s Call Me Madam, and Jennifer Strattan, MTW’s The Producers); a handsome former Olympic athlete Johnny Adel (Jordan Lamoureux from 3-D Theatrical’s Damn Yankees); and yokels Happy and Precious McGuire (Jeffrey Christopher Todd, MTG’s Bat Boy, and Madison Claire Parks, MTW’s Oklahoma!).

Kristin Chenoweth in Steel PierThe role of Precious was Kristen Chenowith’s Broadway debut in a musical. Just last week on the NY City Center blog, Chenowith chose Steel Pier as the show she’d most like to see revived at Encores!, which offers musicals in concert on steroids. “I still have a little thing in my craw about it not getting what it deserved all those years ago,” Chenowith said. “It had one of the best scores in a Broadway show ever… it’s Busby Berkeley, it’s cabaret, it’s operetta… John Kander wrote me a “Glitter and Be Gay” aria. And there’s a song called “First You Dream” that I can’t help but cry when I hear it. To this day, I pull out the CD and listen to the score, and I think, ‘Has anybody else listened to this?’”

Well, you’ll get to hear it in all its glory, backed by a live 17-piece orchestra (Musical Direction by Bill Brown). The huge ensemble includes Richard Bulda, Caitlyn Calfas, Zack Crocker, Rachel Davis, Marisa Field, Bren Thor Johnson, Peter Becket Kuhl, Sarah Meals, Kirklyn Robinson, Allison Sheppard, Hannah Simmons, Michael Starr, and Katy Tabb.

For those who have visited MTW’s main home at Cal State Long Beach—the Carpenter Center—be aware that this takes place in the University Theatre across campus, so plan accordingly. Set your GPS to 7th Street and West Campus Drive, arrive early, and park in Lot 7.

playbill images © Playbill

Steel Pier
Musical Theatre West
Reiner Staged Reading Series
produced by Michael Betts and David Lamoureux
University Theatre
California State University, Long Beach
Sunday, November 23, 2014 at 7:00 pm
for tickets, call (562) 856-1999 x 4 or visit www.musical.org

{ 1 comment }

Omnimath November 23, 2014 at 1:09 pm

Thanks! Sounds like a winner.

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