“Men and me are like pianos - when they get upright, I feel grand"
Steel Pier is one of Kander and Ebb’s lesser known works: its initial 1997 run
(featuring Kristin Chenoweth’s Broadway debut) lasted just a few months and it
is only now that the show is receiving its professional European premiere at
the Union Theatre. In some respects, it is not hard to see why: David
Thompson’s bland book lacks any sort of dramatic drive or interest, and Kander
and Ebb’s score misses the deliciously dark edge that characterises much of
their best work. But this highly energetic production from Paul Taylor-Mills has
a dancing charm which lifts the entertainment factor.
We’re in Atlantic City in the midst of the Great Depression, where exploitative
Mick Hamilton is running a marathon dance competition where the last couple
dancing will win a cash prize. His secret weapon is veteran of such
competitions Rita Racine, but she is tired and determined that this will be her
last danceathon and her partner has failed to turn up. Stepping in at the last
minute is mysterious flyboy Bill Kelly and as they progress through the contest,
Rita finds her attentions and affections torn between these two men.
But though this love story runs through the centre of Steel Pier, the show
really comes alive in the dance marathon sequences with Richard Jones’
frequently awe-inspiring choreography working his ensemble extremely hard, but
to glorious effect. And the stories of the couples, their bitter rivalries,
fraught relationships and the sheer desperation that drives them to try and eke
out a living this way are vividly drawn. It’s then a shame that a piece of
audience participation that initially seems inspires ends up rather misjudged
in the way that it almost belittles the experience of these dancers.
And the central love triangle struggles both in its anodyne plotting – key
revelations are telegraphed way too heavily – and a lack of chemistry between
its leads. Sarah Galbraith battles valiantly against some horrendous green
chiffon to bring some fine-voiced personality to Rita, but as handsome as Jay
Rincon’s Bill is, his comparatively weaker voice is a poor match in their duets
and little spark exists between them. Instead, it is in the ensemble, and
particularly in Aimie Atkinson’s superb Shelby Stevens who delivers Everybody’s
Girl with a delectable tartness, where Steel Pier is at its finest.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 24th November
Labels: Aimie Atkinson, Amy Anzel, Brett Shiels, Ian Kirton, Ian Knauer, Jay Rincon, Kander + Ebb, Lisa-Anne Wood, Rob Lines, Sarah Galbraith