Theater Review: At Encores!, The Band Wagon Searches for Its Fred Astaire

From the Encores! revival of The Band Wagon, at City Center. ?2014, JOAN MARCUS

The Band Wagon has been a lot of things. First, it was a groundbreaking musical revue, with sketches by George S. Kaufman and songs by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, including the classic “Dancing in the Dark.” Starring Fred and Adele Astaire and a newfangled double turntable, it debuted on Broadway in 1931, near the end of the line for the genre. Two decades later, The Band Wagon became one of the great MGM musicals, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Astaire again, with Cyd Charisse. The movie grafted a few of the show’s songs, and many others from the Schwartz-Dietz catalogue, into an original story by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. It’s a thorough delight, a fantastic dance piece, and (you would think) ripe for re-stagification. 

Or perhaps overripe. The Band Wagon now being presented as an Encores! special event at City Center is a reworking of a version first produced six years ago in San Diego, under the title Dancing in the Dark. Everyone associated with that production seems to have vaporized from it except the book writer, Douglas Carter Beane. Beane, who in the meantime updated the television musical Cinderella into a Broadway hit, has retained the overall shape of the Comden and Green story, in which a fading Hollywood star, seeking to rejuvenate his career with an old-fashioned Broadway musical, nearly ends up in a Faustian mess. (Literally: The comeback’s director somehow locates a Goethean allegory in the fluffy material.) But Beane has gone back to original drafts of the screenplay (Comden and Green left the job partway through) and back to the Schwartz-Dietz catalogue as well. The resulting cornucopia includes 11 of the movie’s 14 numbers, completely reordered and used for different purposes, and six interpolated songs. An alcoholic subplot and a romantic backstory, deleted from the film, are reinstated. And, because this is Beane, someone’s gay and proud.

It’s a tribute to Comden and Green (and to the mostly top-drawer songs, of course) that The Band Wagon, now directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, survives this with many of its joys intact. The mystery is why it is not even better. At first I thought it was Beane’s busy-bee book, which sometimes feels like that of a show that’s been reworked too much out of town: rushed and blurry, with unclear motivations and mystifying vestiges of otherwise uprooted subplots. The arc of the secondary couple — the married team who write our hero’s attempted comeback — is really unintelligible if you actually listen to their lines. (They are at each other’s throats one moment, then warmly reminiscing the next.) But in fact such failings are not very significant in a light entertainment, and Beane gets a lot right. The book is swift, some of the jokes are hilarious (if out-of-period), and most of the rejiggering has been done with a savvy ear for structure. The order and alternation of the musical numbers is deeply satisfying, in an old-fashioned way. And no one could say there aren’t enough of them, or that they aren’t performed to advantage. At just 12 players, the band is a little small for a bandwagon, but the arrangements (by Eric Stern and David Chase) and the orchestrations (by Larry Hochman) make the most of the manpower. With much of the heavy-duty romantic balladry cut or reshaped anyway, the swingier sound is apt. 

The problem is Astaire — or, more accurately, his absence. I don’t just mean from the show but from the world for which the show has been rethought. Brian Stokes Mitchell, who plays the movie star here, is one of our most likable stage performers, with a better voice certainly than reedy Fred’s, but neither he nor anyone else I can think of has the range of gifts, and the profound depth of them, too, that underlies this sort of material. Beane all but holds up a placard to explain that away; early on, the star tells the avant-garde choreographer who’s been hired to stage the dances for his comeback, “I’m sorry, I just hoof. Shuffle ball change and shuffle off to Buffalo — that’s all I know.” But you can’t tell that to the songs, especially those that have Astaire in their DNA. These numbers cannot reach any sort of emotional climax when, after a chorus or two, the ensemble has to jump in to express the music in movement, like the specialty team rushing onto the field for the field goal. Mitchell is game in the tap finale (“A Shine on Your Shoes”), but in the sublime soft-shoe duet of “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan,” performed with a notably more comfortable Tony Sheldon as his comeback costar, he mostly seems effortful, the one thing a soft-shoe really cannot be. And it’s deeply odd, almost a shrug in the face of Terpsichore, to reconfigure “Dancing in the Dark” as a largely vocal number, with a few casual ballroom gestures thrown in. Obviously there was no hope of equaling one of the greatest dances ever filmed — but then why use the material?

There are considerable compensations. Mitchell sings beautifully, of course — his “By Myself” is a highlight — but the casting problem is pervasive. Among the six principals, the only one who can dance really well, Michael Berresse as the evil choreographer, is given just about no dancing to do. Laura Osnes, as the love interest, gets through her simplified choreography on charm, and in general has just the right period deportment and sound. Sheldon, too, a late replacement for Roger Rees, is incapable of being un-entertaining. And Tracey Ullman as the distaff half of the songwriting team (Michael McKean is her jealous husband) brings acting coherence to a role that doesn’t naturally suggest it. She’s a delight to have back on the stage, and Beane has given her plenty to sell, including a tour de force collage called “The Pitch” that’s a précis of the entire show in five minutes.  

But all this accommodation — and all these different kinds of accommodation — suggest that The Band Wagon itself has made a Faustian bargain. In return for a chance at eternal life (or at least enhancement money from the Weisslers, who may transfer it to Broadway) the show has bargained away something of its soul. A dance musical whose choreographic highlight is a novelty number (the hilarious “Triplets”) is flat-footed. And that’s one thing The Band Wagon has never been until now.

The Band Wagon is at City Center through November 16.