Sunday, 11 November 2012

Theatre review: Steel Pier

Another lesser-known Kander and Ebb musical gets revived, this time at  the Union. It's now the turn of the 1997 Broadway flop Steel Pier, and in one of those weird bits of theatrical synchronicity it's the second show in as many months about 1930s dance marathons. This is a somewhat less nightmarish vision of the Depression-era endurance phenomenon than Dead On Her Feet but it still features a group of desperate young people dancing to the tune of a ruthless promoter who's probably out to rip them off anyway. Former stunt pilot Bill Kelly (Jay Rincon) turns up at Atlantic City's Steel Pier for a dance marathon run by Mick Hamilton (Ian Knauer.) He meets ageing starlet Rita Racine (Sarah Galbraith) whose dance partner hasn't shown up, and convinces her to team up with him instead. But Bill doesn't know that Rita is secretly married to Mick, and is essentially a ringer whose husband will rig things to make sure she wins.

Paul Taylor-Mills' production is likeable and full of energy, with some enthusiastic choreography from Richard Jones and great vocals from Galbraith and Aimie Atkinson as one of her rivals, and Lisa-Anne Wood fun as a deceptively ambitious small-town girl. Rincon's vocals are a bit weak and wobbly for a leading man though, and I'm not sure what was more distracting, his permanent 100-watt grin or his uncanny resemblance to Ralph Macchio (Bill may have trouble mastering the box step but I reckon he could teach them all a thing or two about Wax On Wax Off.) The large ensemble cast is talented though and provides a lot of energetic support.

Taylor-Mills has fashioned an entertaining enough evening out of the musical but he hasn't really made the case for Steel Pier as an underrated classic - the songs aren't Kander and Ebb's most memorable, and David Thompson's book is a bit bland, with the production and the efforts of the cast having to put in the impression of just how unpleasant these allegedly glamorous events really were (I don't think that, without prior knowledge of the marathons, you would have guessed from this show that contestants sometimes died of exhaustion.) There's also a, rather telegraphed, twist in the story that's straight out of Carousel (fortunately not the wife-beating part) and which doesn't even remotely fit the rest of the story. So on its own terms Steel Pier doesn't come out of this as more than a failed experiment, but the cast and creatives for the most part make the production worth a look.

Steel Pier by John Kander, Fred Ebb and David Thompson is booking until the 24th of November at the Union Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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