Never Gonna Dance Music by Jerome Kern. Book by Jeffrey Hatcher. Lyrics by Dorothy Fields, Oscar Hammerstein II, Otto Harbach, Johnny Mercer, Ira Gershwin, Bernard Dougall, P.G. Wodehouse, Jimmy McHugh, Edward Laska. Based on the original film "Swing Time" produced by RKO Pictures and distributed by Turner Entertainment Co. and based on a story by Ewin Gelsey. Directed by Michael Greif. Choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. Music direction and vocal arrangements by Robert Billig. Scenic design by Robin Wagner. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Paul Gallo. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners. Orchestrations by Harold Wheeler. Dance music arrangements by Zane Mark. Hair design by Paul Huntley. Music coordinator by John Miller. Incidental and song arrangements by James Sampliner. Starring Noah Racey, Nancy Lemenager, Peter Gerety, Ron Orbach, Peter Bartlett, David Pittu, Philip LeStrange, Deborah Leamy, Eugene Fleming, Deidre Goodwin, and Karen Ziemba, with Julio Agustin, Timothy J. Alex, Roxane Barlow, Nili Bassman, Julie Connors, Sally Mae Dunn, Jennifer Frankel, Jason Gillman, Greg Graham, Ashley Hull, Denis Jones, Kenya Unique Massey, Ipsit Paul,
T. Oliver Reid, Kirby Ward, Tommar Wilson, Tony Yazbeck.
Swirling dancers, classic songs, dreamlike colors, a breathtaking view of the New York skyline... All these elements have the capacity to inspire, move, and entertain. All are also present in Never Gonna Dance, the new musical at the Broadhurst that spends almost two and a half hours tapping, shimmying, leaping, and whirling around the stage without ever leaving the ground.
It would be comforting to believe that the show's difficulty stems only from inflated expectations, with the recent revival of Wonderful Town a reminder of exactly what musical comedy can and should be. But even if Never Gonna Dance had opened in exactly this form in another season, that indefinable quality separating the true successes from the also-rans would still be missing. Sometimes all the pieces can be successfully put together and the completed puzzle will still be wrong.
In a case like this, it may seem irrelevant that the show is based on the 1936 film Swing Time, though that proves a significant part of the problem. How can any of today's performers adequately capture the talent, presence, and magic of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers? Assuming there are two performers who dance at least passably as well for the stage adaptation, will they have the magnetic star power necessary to carry a Broadway musical with a big budget and high ticket prices, or will they be glorified chorus kids getting their shot at the big time?
It would seem the answer is the latter. Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager are perfect examples of the type of attractive, ingratiating, talented, and thoroughly bland performers who should not have been cast in these roles. Watching them dance - expertly, it must said - throughout almost the entire show without displaying a whit of charisma, one can't help but wonder if they were born decades too late for the type of roles for which they're apparently ideally suited: the specialty dancers that distracted 1920s and 1930s audiences during scene changes.
Here, the dancing is most often used to distract the audience from the scenes. As the original Swing Time script (by Howard Lindsay and others, based on a story by Erwin Gelsey) has been adapted quite listlessly and languorously by Jeffrey Hatcher, that's not always a bad idea. The story has definite potential: John "Lucky" Garnett (Racey), a vaudeville hoofer, comes to New York on a bet to earn $25,000 by any means except dancing to earn his future father-in-law's respect, and ends up falling in love with dance instructor Penny Carroll (Lemenager). When rendered with little panache and less real humor, as it is here, the tale becomes trying rather than charming.
Some important questions must be asked, though: Does it matter if the book institutes two scene-change dancers of its own (Eugene Fleming and Deidre Goodwin) who are tied to the plot with only the thinnest of threads? Or if Tony winner Karen Ziemba, so brilliant in Contact, is relegated to second banana in a role that couldn't stop the show with a steamroller, part of a romantic subplot (with the equally wasted Peter Gerety) that fills out time rather than story? Or that David Pittu, as Penny's Latin-lover boyfriend, and Peter Bartlett, as her boss at the dance studio, get all the genuine laughs, leaving the leads with little more than table scraps?
Yes, these things matter, because their improvements would mean a better show, but they're mostly irrelevant because the dancing is the real star, and choreographer Jerry Mitchell has supplied that in spades. Unfortunately, despite the athleticism and energy of the cast, the dancing is markedly unmemorable: A stage-filling tap number, a dance lesson, a dance competition (in which Lucky and Penny find themselves, wouldn't you know?), even a quiet moment on top of a building still under construction... Nothing makes an impression, nothing builds, and nothing soars. Is this really the work of the man who choreographed Hairspray, The Full Monty, and even Imaginary Friends?
What those shows had that this one lacks is director Jack O'Brien, an inventive, colorful director who makes Shakespeare seem as breezy as the frothiest musical. Never Gonna Dance is saddled with Michael Greif, a director whose greatest claim to fame is Rent, a show that hardly succeeded because of its direction. It's not that Greif does anything wrong - the pacing is generally right and things move in the proper direction at the right time, but the show has no real shape. The sparse and only marginally attractive sets by Robin Wagner, the elegant and spangly but forgettable costumes by William Ivey Long, and the pedestrian lighting by Paul Gallo all seem to fit right in.
What works is the Jerome Kern score, comprising such timeless songs as "Pick Yourself Up," "A Fine Romance," "The Way You Look Tonight," the title song, and plenty of others. Of course, the problem with assembling songs not written for these characters and situations (as the above four were, for the film) is that they can't seem integrated, and they certainly don't here. That problem is somewhat assuaged by the fine orchestra under Robert Billig's musical direction playing Harold Wheeler's orchestrations, but this is yet another musical just getting by with songs that do it no real good.
Kind of like the dancing, come to think of it. Even the final number, equal parts reality and fantasy, doesn't extol the characters' romantic feelings as much as Racey and Lemenager's abilities to blend in with the chorus. That's as odd a celebration of their talents as this show is of film and stage musicals of decades past; those performers - and that genre - all deserve better than Never Gonna Dance.