Musical numbers: “The Stardust Ballroom,” “Family Counsel,” “Who Gave You Permission?,” “The Job Application,” “A Big Mistake,” There’s a Terrific Band,” “Call Me a Fool,” “Song for Dancin’,” “Dreams,” “Suddenly, There’s You,” “Somebody Did All Right for Herself,” “I Wish You a Waltz,” “Goodnight (Is Not Goodbye),” “I’ve Been Waiting All My Life,” “I Love to Dance,” “Fifty Percent,” “The Stardust Waltz.”
When “Ballroom” first hit Broadway in 1977, the late Michael Bennett turned a humanistic television movie into a middle-aged dance extravaganza. Twenty years later, the original creative team has retooled, rewritten and retitled “Queen of the Stardust Ballroom,” thus returning the flopped tuner to its personal narrative roots. The result is an earnest, genial and sentimental celebration of mature love and romantic renewal that should do well in the secondary professional and community markets, especially where older folks are the target demographics. But it’s tough to envisage another twirl on Broadway or the first-rank road for a slight, old-fashioned show.
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“Queen of the Stardust Ballroom,” set in the 1970s, when it debuted, is now a period piece. Given that the dancing styles that dominate the show are from a much-earlier era, we are thus presented with a confusing set of costumes and choreography. There seems no good reason why the piece could not take place in the present.
Actually, audiences today are probably far more willing to embrace theatricalized tales about ballroom dancing than they were in the 1970s, given the subsequent interest in swing and the success of films like “Strictly Ballroom” and “Shall We Dance.” But in this new version of the show, Arte Phillips’ choreography has been downplayed. In their zeal to reclaim their work from Bennett and re-establish intimacy, the creators probably pulled back too far from the ballroom.
The main focus now is on the sweet romance between the recently widowed Bea (Louise Flanigam) and the married mailman Al (Joel Hatch). With conflict provided by Bea’s perplexed daughter, Diane (Mary Ernster), and Bea’s self-serving and irredeemable sister, Helen (Ann Whitney), the show revolves around the widow’s desire for self-determination.
The neighborhood Stardust Ballroom, of course, functions as a place of fantasy, community and romance. And the lucky hoofer crowned its leader becomes a combination of social worker and middle-aged prom queen. In Bennett’s original “Ballroom,” Bea was crowned at the final curtain. The heroine now dies (without much foreshadowing), as she did in the original teleplay.
Aside from the darker ending, the tale has some nicely elliptical aspects (we never meet Al’s wife or learn about the curious nature of his marriage), but it’s otherwise a conventional and predictable melodrama with sweet lovers, a harsh familial villain and a mother-daughter relationship made right by the final bow. The first act in particular suffers from a surfeit of very short scenes (fine on TV, problematic in the theater), but once the bulk of the action moves to the ballroom, the musical hits its visual and narrative stride.
Flanigam struggles with vocal problems from time to time, but she’s an honest and likable lead who’s well-matched with Hatch, a simple but truthful actor who deftly avoids cliche in his portrayal of the lovelorn mailman.
David Taylor’s production also features several nice cameos, including splendid deadpan work from Ron Keaton as Jack, the hen-pecked husband of Bea’s insufferable sister (a character well played by Whitney).
At the huge Marriott’s Lincolnshire Theater (which enjoys a massive subscriber base in suburban Chicago and has long championed the show), the mainly older audience on the night of this review thoroughly enjoyed the sweetness of Taylor’s staging. One could easily envisage a repeat of this warm reception in resorts like Laughlin, Nev., and Branson, Mo. — and a hundred dinner theaters from coast to coast.