That’s Entertainment!,” anthem of the classic 1953 MGM tuner “The Band Wagon,” asserts, “A show that is really a show/Sends you out with a kind of a glow.” But what if it sends you out scratching your head? That means there’s work to be done on the road, which as it happens is both the plot and now the mandate of “Dancing in the Dark,” Douglas Carter Beane’s uneven adaptation of Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s original screenplay world preeming at the Old Globe.
Beane’s reworked “Xanadu” balanced a horrid movie’s outline with a pleasingly self-referential tone at once mocking and celebrating the source material. But the Fred Astaire/Cyd Charisse starrer boasts a solid structure, with strongly defined characters. Beane and helmer Gary Griffin upend and reroute the film’s contours confusingly, until it becomes unclear whether they’re trying to complete what Comden and Green left unfinished, improve on it or set it aside altogether.
Pic told of lauded, largely forgotten Hollywood hoofer Tony Hunter, looking to repackage himself in a thoroughly modern musical penned by old pals Lily and Lester Marton under the aegis of Jeffrey Cordova, flamboyant visionary auteur in the Orson Welles mode. When Cordova’s pretentious modern-day “Faust” lays an egg, all concerned elect Tony to helm an old-fashioned smash-hit revue employing the Arthur Schwartz/Howard Dietz songbook, leaving him free to romance young prima ballerina Gaby with whom he clashes until they go dancing you-know-where.
Thin, yes, but straightforward and logical.
Beane’s alterations tug at the delicate fabric. Tony (Scott Bakula) has become a testy Oscar-winning thesp with no apparent reason to do a musical, especially alongside the erstwhile revue partners he resents (Beth Leavel and Adam Heller, virtually impersonating Comden and Green). Flashbacks in a “Merrily We Roll Along” vein intend to bring out the effect of rocky personal history on the making of present-day art, but trio’s zigzags of affection and hostility seem arbitrary and inconsistent.
Inconsistencies abound and nag. Gaby (appealing Mara Davi), reconceived as a modern dancer, oscillates among shy gamine, pretentious artiste and stage-savvy soubrette depending on momentary story needs. Though ostensibly a longtime Tony Hunter fan, she’s sniping at him within seconds of their meeting and never gets a clear moment to bond romantically with him, with the ecstatic title tune having been wrested from the leads to become just another production number.
Leavel, Heller and Davi labor to sell their roles as if they made sense moment to moment, and while choreographer Paul’s disloyal antics strain credulity, thesp Sebastian La Cause has an interestingly sinewy presence. As Jeff, the blithely self-absorbed mayfly, a serenely assured Patrick Page sails in for periodic quips and sails out with the show under his arm.
But Bakula, winded by the dances and jockeying between snob and schlub personas, seems pained and uncomfortable as a character whose relationship to showbiz lacks definition. Tony needn’t be portrayed as an inept pushover, making choices as tasteless as Cordova’s were and treated contemptuously by his company, to dramatize the enormous difficulties of wrangling a musical show.
Speaking of which, Lily and Lester’s opus is a convoluted yarn about Louisiana hillbillies and Gotham socialites Beane insists we keep track of, yet it’s no more cohesive than the revue film’s Tony cobbles together. Though sung with gusto to Larry Hochman’s exciting orchestrations, the Schwartz/Dietz songs aren’t always used to best effect: Corny “Louisiana Hayride” gets the full treatment (in formal wear, yet), while “That’s Entertainment!” makes little impression, and “Rhode Island Is Famous for You” should go back to the drawer whence it came.
Show stints on visual pizzazz, with Warren Carlyle’s dances lacking build and excitement. John Lee Beatty’s filmy drapery and primary-colored setpieces seem somehow incomplete, while Ken Billington’s lights cast odd shadows downstage.
Certainly there’s too much talent around for “Dancing in the Dark” not to offer pleasure. Happily unaltered is Beane’s ability to knock off one-liners with the best of them. (Mentioning “Brigadoon” backstage, stage manager Hal, played by Benjamin Howes, apologizes for bringing up the Scottish play.) Still, references to Laurette Taylor and sitzprobes are aimed over the head of most theater mavens, let alone the public.
Too many decisions smack of in-jokes or sheer whim, like an expurgated lyric about blue pajamas from “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” inspiring a blue-pajama’d soft shoe as aud wonders, why? One is reminded of the film’s Jeffrey ceding control to Tony with “I got carried away in the wrong direction.” Or for that matter, the warning of show’s Jeffrey, “Don’t camp the work, it lessens its power.”
There’s no reason this reconstituted “Band Wagon” can’t soar once it jettisons its extraneous and self-contradictory elements. But “Dancing” is some distance from finding its footing, despite finale’s admonition to “Admit we’re a hit and we’ll go on from there.” Not yet.
Beth Leavel and Adam Heller star in Douglas Carter Beane’s adaptation of MGM tuner ‘The Band Wagon.’