Never Gonna Dance
December, 2003 - Broadhurst Theatre, NYC
Reviewed by John Kenrick
If there are any aspiring Max Bialystocks (or Leo Blooms) out there looking to make a few million by producing a flop, I have a hot tip for you -- find a new musical comedy and hand it to director Michael Greif. By the time he's done with it, none of your investors will be surprised if the show closes at a total loss.
When I opened the Playbill for Never Gonna Dance and found a page in the Who's Who filled with the names of composer Jerome Kern and lyricists Dorothy Fields, Johnny Mercer, Oscar Hammerstein II, Otto Harbach, Ira Gershwin and P.G. Wodehouse, how could I help but be delighted? These are some of the most celebrated names from the so-called golden age of musical theatre and film. When the ensemble opened the show by tapping their hearts out in a delicious opening production number set in a candy-colored version of Grand Central Station, I joined the rest of the audience in cheers of delight. It looked like there might be real cause for hope!
Sadly, all that hope proceeded to ebb away as Never Gonna Dance proceeded to waste more great talent and more classic material than I have seen squandered by any single Broadway flop before. You can't fault the songs, which include some of the finest vintage classics American popular music can lay claim to. It's also impossible to blame the cast, which (with a few painful exceptions we shall discuss shortly) has more talent than this show ever begins to reveal.
Choreographer Jerry Mitchell has turned out some effective dances, and the physical production boast period-perfect costumes by William Ivey Long, stunning lighting by Paul Gallo, and some striking New York sets by the great Robin Wagner. Even the basic idea behind the show (revamping the hallowed Astaire-Rogers film Swing Time) is quite sound. With so many promising elements on hand, what went wrong?
Simple. The producers placed all this in the hands of Michael Greif. He won all sorts of acclaim for directing Rent some years ago, but has never helmed a musical comedy before -- which means he has about as much business directing Never Gonna Dance as a body builder would have being governor of a major state. Where creativity is called for, Greif offers a total void. When Jeffrey Hatcher's book runs out of witty one-liners (as it quickly does) and needs shaping, Greif is clearly clueless. As a result, the first act ends without a hint of conflict -- always a dangerous sign. The second act spins out of control, until everything falls hopelessly apart during the title song. Instead of working through this mess, Greif just lets it sit there, humiliating everyone else involved in the show. What a pointless waste.
As director, Greif also bears ultimate blame for some serious casting errors. Its not that the cast is lacking, but they are all too often misused. As a vaudeville hoofer who goes in search of a fortune and unexpectedly stumbles into romance, Noah Racey is a promising musical comedian -- his futile efforts to keep his feet still during "I Won't Dance" mark the clear highpoint of the evening. Sadly, that point comes a mere ten minutes into the show. Although charming and good looking, Racey does not have the mega-star power required to rise above such a still-born show. It was painful to see him struggle through the title tune, which is set in a key he cannot handle and is used in such a dramatically inappropriate way that he has no idea how to make it work. Greif clearly offered him no assistance.
Co-star Nancy Lemanger is Greif's most serious casting mistake. A strong Broadway ensemble performer with obvious talent, she looks for all the world like a poor man's Andrea McArdle, but lacks any hint of star charisma. Worst of all, Racey and Lemanger have absolutely no joint chemistry -- and Astaire and Rogers were all about chemistry.
Karen Ziemba is one of the most gifted musical performers Broadway has ever known -- and she is completely wasted as Lemanger's wisecracking sidekick. This luscious woman, who has stopped more shows than I can count, barely makes an impression here -- a criminal misuse of a showstopping talent! Peter Gerety skillfully milks laughs out of some painfully old routines as a former stock broker fallen on hard times, and underrated comic genius Peter Bartlett turns a potentially insulting "old fag" role into an audience pleaser.
If you want to know how infuriating the misplacement of talent in Never Gonna Dance gets, consider this -- Kirby Ward, who's dazzling talents garnerd an Olivier Award nomination when he starred in the London production of Crazy For You, is here relegated to minor chorus roles. And no, he does not even get to understudy the lead. Senseless.
Never Gonna Dance should have worked, and it doesn't even come close. So all Broadway investors and ticket buyers should take note -- from now on, when you see a musical comedy boasting Michael Greif as its director, find other uses for your cash. No matter now good an idea it may be, the show is doomed.