New York City Theater
"The Band Wagon"
New York City Center
It started as a revue. “The Band Wagon,” which opened on Broadway in 1931, had music by Arthur Schwartz, lyrics by Howard Dietz and a book of loosely-tied sketches by the incomparable George S. Kaufman. In the latest revival, presented by “Encores,” that book has been replaced by one based on the Fred Astaire - Cyd Charisse film of the same name. With added jokes and a nostalgic romance added by playwright Douglas Carter Beane, a theatergoer should be forgiven if he yearned for the Kaufman original, as dated as that may be.
The score, however, is a gem. Who could resist “Dancing in the Dark,” “You and the Night and the Music,” “Something to Remember You By” and the great showbiz anthem, “That’s Entertainment”? With a 12-piece orchestra and a passel of personable actors, the revival should be a smash.
It isn’t, although it tries hard.
Mirroring the film, Tony Hunter (a somewhat insecure Brian Stokes Mitchell) is a fading Hollywood star come to New York to try his hand at theater. Teaming up with egocentric director Jeffrey Cordova (scene-stealing Tony Sheldon) and avant-garde choreographer Paul Byrd (underused Michael Berresse), he rehearses what starts out as a version of “Faust” that soon turns into a pretentious stinker.
Call in married writing team Lily Martin (a terrific Tracey Ullman) and Lester Martin (the amusing Michael McKean) to help revamp the show. With star Gabrielle Gerard (a surprisingly bland Laura Osnes), who’s romantically torn between Byrd and Hunter, the revised show goes on the road, frantically inserting new numbers geared to appeal to the tired businessman.
The show within the show supposedly has a plot, but it’s up in the clouds somewhere. Does it have anything to do with Upper East Side swells brought down to earth with such numbers as the rural “Louisiana Hayride”? Who knows?
Audiences certainly weren’t looking for depth when they saw the film version, considered one of Hollywood’s finest musicals. But they were invested in the characters and the magic. Kathleen Marshall, a wonderful choreographer but inconsistent director, doesn’t find the right tone that would knit everything together.
Yes, there are highs (“Triplets” is delightful, as is “A Shine on Your Shoes”), and there are many moments to gladden any buff’s heart. It’s not a lost cause but, if “The Band Wagon” is to have an after-life, further work is yet to be done.
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 11, 2014