'The Band Wagon': Theater Review

Joan Marcus
Brian Stokes Mitchell and Laura Osnes in "The Band Wagon"
A not entirely robust vehicle, but worth boarding nonetheless

Brian Stokes Mitchell and Laura Osnes lead this stage remake of the 1953 MGM classic, with Tracey Ullman and Michael McKean channeling Betty Comden and Adolph Green

On the busy assembly line of screen-to-stage remakes, few properties might seem like more natural fits than the great MGM movie musicals, and this season has not one but three Vincente Minnelli-directed classics being overhauled in fresh incarnations. In the Broadway pipeline are An American in Paris and Gigi, while writer Douglas Carter Beane’s long-gestating rethink of The Band Wagon is getting a test drive as a ten-day special event, courtesy of the Encores! series.

With its backstage milieu, its plot-driving let’s-put-on-a-show spirit and its droll account of the clash between pretentious art and popular entertainment, the 1953 film has plenty of plum ingredients. And director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall’s light-hearted production capitalizes on them with ebullience and humor. But while Beane’s book does an admirable job of elaborating Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s screenplay into a sturdy frame for the terrific songs by composer Arthur Schwartz and lyricist Howard Dietz, the resulting show is stronger on old-fashioned charm than 21st century viability.

Perhaps more than the movie, it exposes the roots of the patchwork material in the forgotten form of the Broadway revue, from which the title and a handful of tunes originally came in 1931. Shuffling romantic ballads, novelty songs and splashy, full-ensemble production numbers, revues had more of a showcase than a story mandate, so they weren’t required to develop conventional plots or characters. Taking the movie as his loose template, Beane has more or less provided those things here, though suspension of disbelief certainly still helps.

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Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. For anyone who loves the movie — and if you’re reading this, who doesn’t? — there can never be a substitute for the lighter-than-air grace of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. They were the apotheosis of soaring romance expressed in dream-like movement in their ineffably beautiful “Dancing in the Dark” pas de deux on a soundstage Central Park set against a magical Manhattan backdrop. Beane and Marshall compound the absence by dispensing with that gorgeous song as a rehearsal number for the nascent Broadway show within the show, staged with only a perfunctory dance break.

This choice seems a missed opportunity, though the musical has been cast more for vocal and comedic ability than dance chops. There is, however, considerable payoff in the glorious voices of Brian Stokes Mitchell and Laura Osnes as the slow-burning romantic leads, and in the delightful pairing of Tracey Ullman and Michael McKean as songwriting team Lily and Lester Martin. The latter were cheeky self-referential depictions of Comden and Green in the movie and here they become a loving homage to that legendary duo.

Lest anyone think Marshall has turned her back on dance altogether, anyone who saw her exhilarating 2011 revival of Anything Goes knows that no contemporary musical director better understands the power of a large ensemble tap number to deliver a rush of pure joy. Marshall saves that punch for her finale here, in which Mitchell, Osnes and Tony Sheldon (the production’s hilarious secret weapon as grand thespian Jeffrey Cordova) lead the cast in “A Shine on Your Shoes.” If that number doesn’t plaster a silly smile across your face, check your vitals.

Mitchell plays Tony Hunter, a Hollywood matinee idol whose stock has lately fallen, returning to Broadway in a bid to restart his career. “A movie star doin’ a Broadway show?” says a New York cop. “What happened, you lose a bet?”

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Tony reconnects with old pal Jeffrey while the latter is putting the ham in Hamlet. A self-proclaimed master of classic drama, Jeffrey plans to try his hand at directing a musical, and wants Tony to co-star with him. He enlists Lily and Lester, who have their own rocky history with Tony, to write it. He also signs up arrogant modern-dance maverick Paul Byrd (Michael Berresse) as choreographer, and his muse Gabriele Gerard (Osnes) as female lead.

One of Beane’s brightest innovations is to have Lily and Lester talk and sing the rest of the creative team through their skeletal concept in an accelerated sitzprobe, which echoes the show’s buoyant overture by dipping into many of the movie’s best-loved songs. It also allows the marvelous Ullman to demonstrate her savvy comic timing and skill at defining character while showing that she can carry a tune with gusto.

Beane is king of the one-liner, and while he goes easy here on the customary winking anachronisms so heavily peppered through his book for Cinderella, there’s no shortage of wry showbiz jokes. The best go to Sheldon (a Tony nominee for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) and Ullman, who deliver them with aplomb. “New Haven, Boston, Philadelphia,” says Lily. “That’s why our forefathers founded these cities, to try out shows for New York.” The trial-and-error, brink-of-chaos process of assembling a major new musical is chronicled with wit and affection.

The downside is that it’s stretched a little thin, with conflicts that seem more padded than explored. Anyone can see the folly of Jeffrey’s idea to spin a Faustian riff out of the Martins’ breezy confection about a shoeshine man posing as a wealthy Manhattanite to impress his Louisiana girlfriend. But jettisoning that idea — along with Paul’s amusingly arch Martha Graham-style ballets — takes far too long, as does the inevitable ignition of the “showmance” between Tony and Gaby. That said, I wouldn’t for the world have missed the bizarre spectacle of seeing Mitchell (in priest’s attire) and Osnes being propelled around the stage by the minions of Sheldon’s Satan to “You and the Night and the Music.”

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In terms of numbers inserted strictly as comic relief, nothing beats the daffiness of “Triplets,” in which Gaby’s character in the musical fantasizes about herself and the Tony and Jeffrey characters as resentful toddlers. It makes zero sense, but it’s fun, so who cares? One of the high points of this production is “Louisiana Hayride,” in which a bunch of Upper East Side swells get a taste of Southern jubilation, with Osnes leading the charge in rousing Kay Thompson mode.

Of the show’s best-known songs, “By Myself” gets soulful treatment from Mitchell, while “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan” yields a silky soft-shoe routine with Mitchell and Sheldon in tails and canes (no top hats). Though again, it’s a disappointingly downscaled version of what Astaire and Jack Buchanan do in the movie. The enduring showbiz anthem “That’s Entertainment,” which includes some of Dietz’s cleverest lyrics, is used early to galvanize the principals, and a second time as an apt finale.

The usual opulence of the Encores! orchestra has been reined in for this production, with just 12 musicians under the baton of guest music director Todd Ellison. However, the sound suffers from no lack of body or energy. And while the performers don’t supplant memories of their big-screen counterparts, they have both collective and individual appeal, including the amusing Don Stephenson as Jeffrey’s “right hand man,” Hal. The sly reveal of their relationship is a trademark Beane touch, but he keeps it within the bounds of period fluff.

The show had a previous tryout with a different cast and director at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 2008, titled Dancing in the Dark. Underwhelmed reports on that earlier version suggest that the project has come a long way. It may never be quite ready for primetime or equal the exalted status of the movie, but lovers of vintage musicals could do a lot worse.

Cast: Brian Stokes Mitchell, Tracey Ullman, Michael McKean, Tony Sheldon, Laura Osnes, Michael Berresse, Don Stephenson, Lawrence Alexander, John Carroll, Joyce Chittick, Jason DePinto, Erika Hunter, Dionna Thomas Littleton, Gavin Lodge, Erica Mansfield, Brittany Marcin, Paul McGill, Kaitlin Mesh, Jermaine R. Rembert, Brandon Rubendall, Jennifer Savelli, Eric Sciotto, Samantha Zack

Director-choreographer: Kathleen Marshall

Book: Douglas Carter Beane, from the screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green

Music: Arthur Schwartz

Lyrics: Howard Dietz

Set designer: Derek McLane

Costume designer: William Ivey Long

Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski

Sound designer: Brian Ronan

Music director: Todd Ellison

Orchestrations: Larry Hochman

Presented by New York City Center Encores!, by special arrangement with Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures