Review – Steel Pier – Union Theater

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This has really been a great year for Kander and Ebb for me. Not only did I get back to see Chicago, but I managed to see THREE shows by them that haven’t been revived in ages – Flora the Red Menace (originally done in 1965), Curtains (the next to last of their shows, from 2006), and, now, Steel Pier (1997). All of these shows were new for me, and I took the same approach for all of them, of not reading up on them beforehand so I could have the maximum experience.

Steel Pier has a fun premise – a bunch of people are gathered together at a dance marathon in the 1930s, trying to make a little money when there was not a lot to go around. Some of the people have been to a few of these things and know each other; first among these is Rita Racine (Sarah Galbraith), who has a career singing at small carnivals. She winds up dancing with a stunt pilot (Bill Kelly – Jay Rincon) who’s also shown up partnerless; but, as it turns out, she is actually a woman trying to escape her partner, and the shiftless life she’s been leading. Will this dance be her final turn on the stage? Who is the stunt pilot, really? And why do both he and the MC (Mick Hamilton – Ian Knauer) seem so creepy?

It’s fun seeing these shows in the context of the wide body of Kander & Ebb’s work: the strong women characters and dissonant melodies that are present at the very beginning in Flora; the dark look at life and unflattering portrayal of showbiz that runs straight through Cabaret to Curtains. Steel Pier has a lot of the markers of a K&E work. The dancers aren’t the aspirational kids of a 40s musical; most of them are pros who are on the circuit, out to make a buck, and not above using tricks if endurance is not enough. But the whole thing is a gimmick, anyway, just a way for the MC to make himself some money, attract bigger sponsors through trumped up events, and promote his own favorite on his way to even higher realms of celebrity. In some ways, it’s reality TV 1935, but played out on the radio. Ah, delicious cynicism: I love you so!

As performed, Steel Pier is a showpiece for two side characters: the sociopathic, manipulative MC Mick (with his great “power” duet “A Powerful Thing,” performed with his dupe minion); and Shelby Stevens (Aimie Atkinson) the hoofer with a heart of gold who steals the show with the quite crass “Everybody’s Girl,” providing both the pipes and pins to make this number blaze.

Sadly, I was uncompelled by the rest of the drama: neither the sideshows of the various couples failing to make it to the end; or, more critically, the “romance” between Rita and the pilot. Neither she nor he ever really clicked for me as actors or characters. Both seemed wooden and unbelievable; and while stiffness seemed appropriate to the MC, I needed to feel Rita being torn and betrayed. But I never bought it any more than I bought the pilot with his pasted on grin. He just wasn’t real enough for me to believe he was desperately in love with anybody – he seemed to be sleepwalking through it all, albeit while smiling all the way.

Fortunately, there were lots of great songs and fabulous dancing – no shortage of dancing! – to get us from point A to point B, and while I wasn’t sold by the story, I was definitely wowed by the production. In the intimate confines of the Union, to have this many people singing and high kicking was positively electric, so much so that I feel that complaining about the leads seems almost churlish. And there was certainly magic at times, like during the dream/hallucination sequence “Leave the World Behind.” This show is not perfect, but it’s still a good night out and an excellent value, and I recommend it to musicals fans as well as K&E aficionados.

(This review is for a performance seen on Friday, November 9th, 2012. It continues through November 24th.)

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