Goods and Disservices

In musical theater, the old songs are the best songs, if only you know how to treat them

I suppose, as a musical-theater purist, I should be up on my high horse about Never Gonna Dance, and if I had enough space I would certainly mount the noble steed for at least a quick canter through Jeffrey Hatcher's unsynopsizeably convoluted plot, which makes far less sense than that of any '20s or '30s musical I know. The beast would be bound to shy, too, at the nightmarish way in which some of Jerome Kern's best and least relevant songs are crammed into Hatcher's jerry-built dramaturgy. But the show put me in a forgiving mood, largely because the Jerry for whom Hatcher was building, it turns out, was choreographer Jerry Mitchell, and the show's three or four best dance numbers—including a slow, delicate "The Way You Look Tonight" ostensibly danced on a steel girder in midair—are reassuringly good, like hot cocoa on a cold day, and Nancy Lemenager and Noah Racey, who dance the bulk of them, are as appealing to watch in motion as birds in flight.

Some of their colleagues aren't painful, either. Even miscast and mis-utilized, Karen Ziemba projects energy and warmth, and the show has several assets not currently duplicated on any other stage, including Deidre Goodwin's long, elegant legs, which engage in eye-popping high kicks, and Peter Bartlett's arms, which flail, flap, and flutter to provoke louder laughs than any comedian in a musical comedy since the great age, excepting Nathan Lane in The Producers. I know what you're going to say, and I hate stereotype swishes too, but Bartlett's persona is not a stereotype; it's a quintessence—pure, concentrated swish, an ambergris of prissiness that produces laughter instead of perfume. My forgiveness of Hatcher, in fact, is predicated mainly on his having provided Bartlett with such viable material. He hasn't done nearly as well for the others, with the exception of Peter Gerety, whose voice and comic sense I find about equally grating, and who's an altogether unsuitable partner for Ziemba. The people who paired Victor Moore with Helen Broderick in the 1935 movie Swing Time, on which Never Gonna Dance is tenuously based, knew a lot more about matching actors with their material.

Trying to assimilate Kern to the metallic clamor of today's Broadway was a fairly thankless task to start with. Despite his knack for explosive syncopation, he generally disliked jazz—Robert Russell Bennett allegedly had to show him how to write "The Waltz in Swing Time" in swing time—and tended to compose operetta-tinged romantic music that already seemed a throwback in the Broadway of the 1930s. The show's musical arrangements, chiefly by Harold Wheeler and Zane Mark, mostly give Kern a gentle shake-up, but when the book "spots" a number in some really absurd position, like having a male Latin crooner sing the girlish "Who?," they have no choice but to go along with the absurdity. The curse of this kind of pastiche, in a collaborative art form, is that one person's stupid mistake drags everybody down, which is why old musicals should either be done in their original form or left alone. Never Gonna Dance rarely causes the active torment of such predecessors as Crazy for You, but its lapses tend to take the edge off its basic good nature. Building a theater score out of the numbers Kern wrote for various films was such a good idea that you wonder why dragging in inappropriate items from his earlier stage works was necessary.

Deidre Goodwin and Eugene Fleming in Never Gonna Dance
photo: Joan Marcus
Deidre Goodwin and Eugene Fleming in Never Gonna Dance

Details

Never Gonna Dance
Broadhurst Theatre
235 West 44th Street
212.239.6200

Primrose
Sol Goldman 14th Street YMHA
344 East 14th Street
212.868.4444

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Still, as I say, Never Gonna Dance's good things are good—they include Robin Wagner's appealingly old-fashioned cartoon-deco backdrops—while the bad are mildly irksome rather than agonizing. Michael Greif's slapdash directing sustains an amicable tone, and Mitchell's light-footed dances sweep it off its feet whenever it starts to sag, rounding it off with a big finish that looks like the daydream of someone imagining himself in a Fred Astaire musical, which is just right. As for that book—I won't ride today, James; you can lead High-and-Mighty back to the stable now. Make sure she gets plenty of oats.

As an object lesson in what I mean, Musicals Tonight! is presenting, in staged-concert form, the first New York performances ever of Gershwin's Primrose, a modestly successful 1924 London show for which he and his brother Ira joined forces with some English talents to produce an odd hybrid, not so much musical comedy as post-operetta—a square-rhythmed musical with precious few hints of jazz or American "go" about it, and more than a few echoes of Gilbert and Sullivan. The plot is capricious but, unlike Never Gonna Dance's, always within waving distance of human sanity; the jokes are often as good as Hatcher's best. The songs are mostly unfamiliar, and Gershwin's knack for Edwardian daintiness will surprise those who don't know how much he admired and learned from the early works of Kern (a lifelong Anglophile). An even bigger surprise is the wit lurking in the lyrics of Ira's Anglicizing partner Desmond Carter. As always at Musicals Tonight!, the cast is largely amateurish, but enough comes across to make you see what the work could be, in the hands of knowing professionals, as part of a living tradition.

 
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