Review By Brian Scott Lipton
You would have to be a true curmudgeon not to leave the New York City Center Encores production of “The Band Wagon” without a big smile on your face. After all, watching some of the theater world’s most gifted performers in this lighter-than-air confection, buoyed by the delightful songs of Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, a snappy, joke-filled book by the irreverent Douglas Carter Beane (based on the MGM screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green), and the inventive choreography of director Kathleen Marshall, is a rare experience. That it’s not a perfect one is a slight disappointment.
The basic plot concerns the return of slightly embittered, washed-up movie star Tony Hunter (the charismatic Brian Stokes Mitchell) to New York, where he’s agreed to star in a new Broadway musical directed by a pretentious, egotistical Brit named Jeffrey Cordova (the scene-stealing Tony Sheldon). What Tony, who already has mixed feelings about the project, doesn’t know is that his collaborators will include his old frenemies, writers Lester Martin (a delightfully dry Michael McKean) and his wife Lily (the sensational Tracey Ullman in a long overdue return to the New York stage) – with whom Tony was once romantically involved.
Also on hand to complicate matters are Paul Byrd (a well-cast Michael Berresse), a snooty modern dance choreographer whose sweet girlfriend, the young modern dancer Gabrielle Gerard (the always lovely Laura Osnes) will be the show’s leading lady. There’s also Jeffrey’s “right hand man” Hal Meadows (a delicious Don Stephenson) who proves to have more depth than one might imagine.
Beane’s re-working of the film’s slight story admirably fleshes out some details – and includes some nifty new gags. But it also adds some unnecessary conflicts, notably the Tony-Lester-Lily triangle. And the Tony-Gabrielle romance has little spark on the page and on the stage; there’s no real reason why he should dislike this sweet, adoring girl so intently when they meet; in part because Mitchell never quite seems comfortable being disliked, either by anyone on the stage or by the audience. And while their eventual coupling may be a given, it doesn’t feel particularly organic.
Fans of the classic MGM film may also feel cheated by the omission of the famed “Girl Hunt Ballet” (which would admittedly make no sense in this version), and the almost throwaway treatment of the gorgeous ballad “Dancing in the Dark,” staged simply as if Marshall was well aware that any attempt to stage this song would fall short of watching Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse glide around Central Park.
Still, there are many wonderful moments, both musical and comic, to keep us satisfied, beginning with the infectious “That’s Entertainment.” Other highlights include Mitchell’s heartfelt rendition of “By Myself,” the deliberately silly “I Love Louisa” and “Triplets,” Osnes’ gorgeous take on the little-known “Something You’ve Never Had Before,” and Sheldon and Mitchell’s superb, soft-shoe-filled “I’ll Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan.”
Marshall also lets her talented ensemble dance their shoes off in the spirited “Lousiana Hayride” number and especially in the big finale, “A Shine on Your Shoes,” led by an exuberant, tap-happy Mitchell. Fortunately, Byrd’s ridiculous ballets are mercifully only seen in small segments.
If you already have tickets to “The Band Wagon,” don’t change your plan – go and enjoy this show. (And if you don’t have tickets, go buy them). But if those involved want to take “The Band Wagon” to another level, then some serious re-planning, re-thinking, and re-shaping is in order. To quote some of the characters, “buy that extra week in New Haven.”
The Band Wagon runs at New York City Center (131 West 55th Street) through November 16. For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or order online at www.NYCityCenter.org
*Photos: Joan Marcus