Musical numbers: “Swan Lake,””The Audition,””Corps de Ballet,””When It Happens to You,””Top of the Sky,””Ballet Montage,””It’s a Fairy Tale,””Be Somewhere,””The Rag,””The Reason for My Being,””Do Svedanya,””Come Home,””When You Dance for a King,””The Ballet of the Red Shoes.”
Many hands cobbled “The Red Shoes,” and every one of them is evident in this mishmash musical version of the beloved ballet film. Having contemporary theater and dance talents mix it up with legends from Broadway and Hollywood’s golden ages came only partly by design, and it never pays off: One moment “The Red Shoes” is angst-ridden, hand-to-brow melodrama; the next it’s “On Your Toes, “”Gigi” and “42nd Street” all rolled into one.
Though it has its moments — all of which may be attributed to Margaret Illmann’s spectacular dancing in the Moira Shearer role –“The Red Shoes” renders the 1948 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger movie quite literally as a pedestrian affair. It’s a sure bet to join the growing roster of recent film-to-tuner flops that includes “Nick and Nora,””My Favorite Year” and “The Goodbye Girl.”
Yet there was promise in the premise of matching some of the ambitious team that musicalized “The Secret Garden”– librettist Marsha Norman, director Susan Schulman and set designer Heidi Landesman — with veteran composer Jule Styne. Early on, however, Schulman was replaced by film director Stanley Donen; Styne brought in his “Funny Girl” collaborator Bob Merrill (working under the pseudonym Paul Stryker) for new lyrics; several principals were replaced and so, most recently, was leading man Roger Rees, who played the ballet impresario Boris Lermontov. Rees’ understudy, Steve Barton, took over the role.
None of this would matter if the result were wonderful, but that isn’t the case in this story of a young dancer, Victoria Page (Illmann), torn between the producer who has made her a star and the equally young composer, Julian Craster (Hugh Panaro), who writes her greatest role and falls in love with her. The movie itself isn’t exactly a model of restraint. Nevertheless, it has some complexity — in the development of Julian’s and Victoria’s personalities — and subtlety, particularly in the handling of Lermontov’s jealousy over his proteges’ romance.
All of this is rendered in the musical with brutal obviousness. Vicky and Julian’s eyes meet fatefully on their first encounter, while auditioning for Lermontov. Hired for the corps de ballet, the company breaks out into “Corps de Ballet,” a standard-issue trouper ditty about the drones who provide a background for the stars. In short order, Lermontov decides to make Page a star because “there is a kind of lightning inside you.” In the thuddingly mundane “Top of the Sky,” he sings: “Most of us are bound to a lifetime on the ground/You won’t stop ’til you reach the top of the sky.” You half expect him to announce, “You’re going out a corps girl, but you’re coming back a star!”
“The Red Shoes” ballet is reserved for the final scene, preceded by a confrontation in Vicky’s dressing room between Boris and Julian as the curtain is going up, over whom she should follow — her Svengali, to stardom, or her lover, to a different kind of happiness. Since all of this has been spelled out before, the movie is happy to put the scene across in a flash. Onstage, it’s so grotesquely blown up you wish Vicky would tell them both where to go and waltz off in search of her own Monte Carlo.
Instead, of course, she dances Lar Lubovitch’s treatment of the title ballet. Here, too, an odd disjunction is in play. The stage couldn’t possibly re-create the hallucinogenic journey depicted in the film. Instead, it’s imbued with a heavy overlay of Russian Orthodoxy — most of it takes place outside a church — and given an added dollop of feminism: Danced to near-death by the devilish slippers, the fabled ballerina is joined by a contingent of similarly red-shod ghosts — sort of the Willies AWOL from “Giselle”– to accompany her to the Great Beyond.
Illmann has an elegant line and, while bearing no resemblance to the red-haired, burnished-looking Shearer, is quite endearing as Vicky, even if her attempts at singing are, well, attempts at singing. The other high points in the casting are George De La Pena as the demanding, mercurial ballet master, Grisha; and Leslie Browne in the smallish role of the prima ballerina Vicki replaces.
Barton, on the other hand, brings nothing more interesting to Lermontov than characterless singing and acting; he doesn’t come close to conveying the essential mix of class, intimidation and charisma. I’d rather have heard Rees talking his way through the songs. Panaro’s Julian is no better; he’s overwrought and unconvincing either as determined composer or impassioned lover.
Heidi Landesman’s beautiful designs suggest Hogarth by way of Hockney — etched flourishes of scenes marked always by an ironic humor — though the big dance has an added Maurice Sendak quality, with its looming church and dark-hued dreamscapes. Ken Billington’s lighting also goes a long way in establishing the atmosphere throughout the 19 scenes. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are nicely stylized versions of ’20s clothes and dance wear.
If Donen was brought on to smooth out and speed up the action, he’s been successful. Lubovitch’s dances are fun enough — is there any doubt that when the dancers gather for a birthday celebration, they’ll all turn into flappers? — and the “Red Shoes” ballet itself provides a stunning showcase for Illmann. But those lively dances are unlikely to satisfy either theatergoers anticipating a contemporary look at a favorite story or those expecting a hummable new show from a reliable old hand.