Broadway is positively awash in singing, dancing love letters to New York. Now comes "Never Gonna Dance," another peppy musical about kids from the sticks who find the streets paved with gold. Clearly, there's nothing better than being an eager youngster arriving in the city with a dream in your heart and taps on your shoes. Just so long as it's 1935.
Broadway is positively awash in singing, dancing love letters to New York. The kids at “42nd Street” are still tapping their way to fame and fortune, and wholesome little “Thoroughly Modern Millie” continues to foil those bad guys and find romance eight times a week. More recently, two sisters from Ohio hit the city like a ton of fireworks in “Wonderful Town.” Now comes “Never Gonna Dance,” another peppy musical about kids from the sticks who find the Gotham streets paved with gold. Clearly, there’s nothing better than being an eager youngster arriving in the city with a dream in your heart and taps on your shoes. Just so long as it’s 1935 or thereabouts.
All the competition could mean trouble for the new cheerleader on the squad. “Never Gonna Dance,” a stage adaptation of the beloved Fred-and-Ginger picture “Swing Time,” doesn’t have a galvanizing star performance at its center, as does “Wonderful Town,” and it hasn’t got the name-brand title “42nd Street” can boast. It’s a pretty and pleasant musical in the neoretro tradition that has become one of Broadway’s more reliable genres in recent years. It has plenty of rapturous dancing, courtesy of the Street’s golden-boy choreographer of the moment, Jerry Mitchell, and an abundance — maybe an overabundance — of Jerome Kern tunes. But the overall effect is on the bland side, and somewhat synthetic — the show twinkles along amiably but only rarely dazzles.
The recipe being used here was invented by the 1992 musical “Crazy for You,” which took a basic plot and the score from an old Gershwin musical (“Girl Crazy”), concocted a new book from the bones of the old one, tossed in songs harvested from other pastures and, thanks to director Mike Ockrent and a little-known choreographer named Susan Stroman, created theatrical magic. Ockrent and Stroman set the bar high, and it’s possible “Never Gonna Dance” would shine more brightly if it wasn’t set beside that gem. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that the formula isn’t producing the same spectacular results.
The musical’s plot concerns the travails of young hoofer Lucky Garnett (Noah Racey), whose marriage to a Pennsylvania society gal is stopped at the altar, essentially for lack of funds. Lucky heads to the city in search of 25 grand, after being admonished by fiancee’s papa to give up dancing — or else.
This sets up the show’s most inventive number, set in Grand Central Station. Fresh off the train, Lucky desperately tries to tame his limbs’ pesky yen for syncopation. But the city just won’t let him: The rhythmic stacking of newspapers, the tapping toes of impatient secretaries waiting for a cup of joe, the song of a hot dog vendor — they all conspire to entice his anxious feet into motion. Racey’s determined efforts to slap stillness into his rebellious appendages is a lovely bit of physical comedy, but of course the rhythm wins out, and soon Lucky is leading the population in a rousing tap number set to the tune of “I Won’t Dance,” one of the many Kern tunes imported to shore up the half-dozen songs written (with Dorothy Fields) for the movie. (“I Won’t Dance” actually figured in another Fred and Ginger picture, “Roberta.”)
This thrilling number, revealing Racey as a dancer of expansive grace and a seemingly unstoppable itch to get airborne, is hard to top — and you begin to suspect the musical’s creators know as much, since it carries on past the point of exhilaration and threatens to exhaust us. What follows never quite reaches those heights again, although there are more pleasures sprinkled amid the strained comic developments of the narrative.
Mitchell’s choreography is the backbone of the show, and this versatile dance-maker, whose credits include the concurrently running “Hairspray” and “Gypsy,” pays affectionate tribute to the classic dances from the Astaire and Rogers movies without obvious borrowing. His most enchanting dance for the show’s young stars, Racey and Nancy Lemenager, takes place atop an unfinished skyscraper (never mind what they’re doing up there), with Lucky and Lemenager’s Penny Carroll leaping from beam to beam to the tune of Kern and Fields’ immortal “The Way You Look Tonight.” Their final pas de deux is the closest the musical comes to outright imitation of the picture. Set to the title tune (at one point the movie’s title, too), it expresses in gestures both gentle and tempestuous their sensual attraction and desperation at having to part. Throughout, Mitchell amplifies the theatricality of the classic Astaire-Rogers dynamics with more classical figurations elegantly integrated into the dances.
It’s not an easy task to follow in the fleet footsteps of Fred and Ginger, of course. Racey and Lemenager are both terrific dancers who can sing as well as, if not better than, their famous forebears. But that ineffable thing called chemistry, which was, after all, what gave the dramatically flimsy Astaire & Rogers pictures their allure, isn’t really in evidence here.
Racey is a genial charmer, but Lemenager is handicapped by book author Jeffrey Hatcher’s reconception of her character. Instead of an archetypal Rogers heroine, a tough-shelled dame with a gooey center, Penny has been reconstructed as a standard-issue ingenue, all sweetness. Maybe she’s been watered down so someone can logically sing Kern and Johnny Mercer’s “I’m Old Fashioned” — but the tradeoff is hardly worth it.
In other respects, Hatcher’s book is a clever if laborious expansion of the original story. As Lucky finds himself falling in love with Penny, a dance instructor he meets when she absconds with his lucky quarter, he tries to avoid racking up that lump sum that will oblige him to return to his fiancee. While Penny and Lucky prepare for a big amateur dance contest, Lucky’s pal Morgenthal, a tramp who used to be a stockbroker (played with grumpy warmth by Peter Gerety), tries to outrun Lucky’s financial good fortune. Hatcher’s wisecracks infuse the musical with little flecks of winking irony: Morgenthal tries to lose Lucky’s money by investing in such hopeless schemes as a national chain of coffee shops. Peter Bartlett’s flamboyantly sour turn as Penny’s boss (Pangborn, he’s called) is another knowing contemporary touch.
Karen Ziemba plays Penny’s worldly wise pal Mabel, paired off with Morgenthal, and she’s a welcome presence even in an underwritten role. (This one, too, has less bite than the movie equivalent, played by the wonderfully sour Helen Broderick.) She gets to strut her stuff in the second act, leading the kids in a festive, little-known Kern and P.G. Wodehouse tune, “Shimmy With Me,” and then exhorting Penny to reach for the moon, romantically speaking, with “I Got Love.” She supplies the show with a welcome jolt of plain personality whenever she’s onstage.
Personality, in fact, is surprisingly absent from the contributions of some of the creative team. Robin Wagner reproduces classic Gotham iconography in handsome but uninspired ways, and William Ivey Long’s costumes, which occasionally quote from the Fred-and-Ginger canon, are likewise lovely to look at without being memorable. Director Michael Greif, tackling a big Broadway musical for the first time since “Rent,” turns in a technically impeccable performance without placing any personal stamp on the material.
With musicals based on movies proliferating like mushrooms, it was natural, perhaps inevitable, that the owners of the RKO catalog would seek to capitalize on the beloved Astaire and Rogers legacy. But “Never Gonna Dance” proves the translation isn’t as easy as it might seem. It was not the farcical romantic plots, the scores or even the dance steps themselves that drew audiences to these movies in huge numbers. It was the one element that cannot handily be reproduced: the indescribable magic that occurred whenever Fred took Ginger by the hand and whirled her onto the floor.