“Life’s a party,” the ensemble sings. “Why don’t you come to the Steel Pier?” Audiences are almost dared not to add a silent “ol’ chum” to the tail of that lyric, since the song, like so much else in “Steel Pier,” unabashedly recalls an earlier moment in musical-theater history. The new tuner, with its score by John Kander and Fred Ebb — who three decades ago entreated audiences to “come to the cabaret” — may be a pastiche, but it’s a skillful one that need offer no apologies for cribbing from the best.
Even with a first act that occasionally drags, the marathon-dancing “Steel Pier,” directed by Scott Ellis, with book by David Thompson, might be the musical to beat in what’s shaping up to be an artistically lackluster spring. Charming performances, choreography by Susan Stroman that cannily blends period steps with her trademark innovations, and some of Kander and Ebb’s strongest writing in years overshadow whatever missteps this musical makes.
By turns dark and cheerfully old-fashioned, “Steel Pier” is set in an Atlantic City ballroom of 1933. The Depression-era craze of marathon dancing is in full swing, and an assortment of hopefuls have come together at the Steel Pier dance hall to compete for a $2,000 prize and a shot at showbiz fame. Although the squalid, desperate reality of these competitions isn’t ignored, neither does it become the musical’s focus as it did in the definitive marathon movie, “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”
Instead, “Steel Pier” borrows a conceit from “Carousel” and countless romantic fantasies by having its hero return from the dead to woo his beloved. The sound of an airplane in distress opens the musical, and the first image is of the prone stunt pilot Bill Kelly (Daniel McDonald) rising to his feet, surrounded by an ensemble of white-clad ghostly dancers. “I’ve got three weeks,” he says. “Just three weeks.” (Early preview audiences apparently didn’t catch on that the pilot was dead, and so the device has become a bit more clarified; still, the premise remains somewhat ambiguous until act two.)
As the action shifts to the dance hall, the pilot maneuvers to partner with Rita Racine (Karen Ziemba), a B-level vaudeville singer whose claim to fame is having kissed Lindbergh upon his landing. Bill, it seems, had won a contest for a date with Rita just before he crashed his plane, and has been given a three-week reprieve from death to collect his prize.
What neither Bill nor the other marathon dancers know is that Rita is secretly married to Mick Hamilton (Gregory Harrison), the sleazy marathon emcee who pulls strings to ensure Rita is the marathon winner.
The first act of the musical charts the pilot’s dance-floor courtship of Rita, and introduces other marathon contestants: Shelby (Debra Monk), a bawdy, no-nonsense burlesque singer; Buddy and Bette Becker (Joel Blum and Valerie Wright), a brother-and-sister hoofer team; Johnny Adel (Timothy Warmen), a handsome former Olympic athlete, and his partner, the snobby Dora (Alison Bevan); and Happy and Precious McGuire (Jim Newman and Kristin Chenoweth), the requisite hicks.
Dancing on Tony Walton’s eye-popping set — a large rotunda lined with hundreds of light bulbs — the couples enact their various dramas while showcasing Stroman’s vibrant choreography. The dances range from the fox trot and tap to the Lindy Hop, and even within the constraints of the historical dance styles, Stroman works in her idiosyncratic touches: Listen to how the shuffling of the ghostly dancers in the first scene mimics the sound of ocean waves.
Still, the overlong first act does include a shade too much marathon dancing, slowing the progression of the plot. The musical doesn’t fully come to life until Monk’s knockout performance of “Everybody’s Girl” late in act one. A bump-and-grind tribute to promiscuity, “Everybody’s Girl” is the type of comic, show-stopping, character-defining number at which Kander and Ebb excel — think “When You’re Good to Mama” from “Chicago” — and Monk plays it for all it’s worth.
Another first-act song also recalls a “Chicago” number, but with lesser results: “A Powerful Thing,” in which the emcee sings the praises of manipulation, lacks the punch of “Chicago’s” “Razzle Dazzle.”
The second act opens big and continues at a quicker, more satisfying pace. A dream sequence, “Leave the World Behind,” in which a bevy of chorus girls tap-dance on the wings of a biplane (a la 1933’s “Flying Down to Rio” pic) is a charmer, while Monk gets yet another chance in the spotlight with the wistful ballad “Somebody Older.”
Monk’s crowd-pleasing turn takes nothing away from the winning performances by the leads, McDonald and Ziemba. McDonald does the near-impossible by giving texture to a romantic male hero role that might otherwise have been the typical musical-theater bore. Ziemba accomplishes something just as noteworthy: Her character, although not above participating in a subterfuge for money, has the audience in her palm from the moment she walks onstage. Ziemba’s big solo number in act two, a sort of jazz ballet called “Running in Place,” is a so-so song that she raises to a higher level.
Harrison will surprise his TV fans with his fine singing voice, and he does well going against type — at 46 he still has matinee-idol looks — by playing the villain. Still, his performance (and the production) would be better served by an edgier, more menacing quality early on: Both his character and “Steel Pier” only gradually move beyond stretches of blandness. Ellis, whose best work arguably was the frothy revival of “She Loves Me,” is particularly good at this musical’s romantic elements, but seems less comfortable with the darker strains of Thompson’s book.
The rest of the cast is fine, particularly Newman and Chenoweth as the yokels who wise up fast. All benefit from William Ivey Long’s attractive costumes (the women don cellophane gowns for a publicity-stunt wedding), and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting design glides the action and mood from carnival atmosphere to otherworldly ambience. “Steel Pier” itself doesn’t always glide so smoothly, but it has the stamina and heart to win any marathon.