Back in 1997, I remember watching the Tony Awards and seeing the scene from the nominated musical Steel Pier, with music by Fred Kander and John Ebb, and book by David Thompson.* I loved the dance, and I loved the music. The Tony Award voters didn’t, and the show lost all 11 nominations (including Best Musical, to Titantic, The Musical. However, I quickly went out and got the CD. I still enjoy the score to this day. However, the show faded quickly on Broadway, and never went on tour. In particular, it surprisingly never made it out to Los Angeles.
(*: It is interesting to note that much of this team is returning in 2018 with a new show.)
Luckily, the UCLA School of Television, Film, and Theatre (FB) remedied that failure, including the show as part of its 2017-2018 Main Stage Season. It entered my theatre RADAR when I learned of their season (and I should note, given this show, I plan to go back to more of their productions). I started scanning Goldstar for discount tickets; when they came online just before we were about to sit down at Candide a few weeks ago, I grabbed them on the Goldstar app.
Seeing Steel Pier allowed me to continue my quest: to see musicals I have only heard. I find this helps me understand the story better. That was certainly true for Steel Pier.
For those unfamiliar with the show, it is the story of a dance marathon on the famed Steel Pier at Atlantic City. Dance marathons were the Survivor of the 1930s: couples would sign up and dance, continuously, for 45 minutes every hour, until only one couple was left. These marathons could go on for weeks and weeks. All this for a cash prize.
Kander, Ebb, and Thomson, working with Scott Ellis and Susan Stroman, used this setting of a story of a C-level celebrity, Rita Racine, the first woman to kiss Charles Lindburgh when he returned from France. Rita and her secret husband, Mick Hamilton, had kept themselves afloat through the dance marathon business, with Mick MCing the marathon, and engineering things so Rita would win. But this marathon was to be Rita’s last … so she thought. Her partner having not shown up, she teams up with a hot-dog aviator for the marathon. From thereon, the show is a marathon of dancing, specialty numbers, and romance, as we learn about all of the couples. We learn of Mick’s plot for Rita, her goals and desires, and who the aviator really is. We also see Rita finally decide to take charge of her life, seizing upon the second chance this marathon granted her.
The plot is much more complicated than that; you can read a detailed synopsis on Wikipedia. When the show was first performed on Broadway, critics were expecting another Caberet or Chicago (whose revival had just recently reopened). They instead found a different story — something more spiritual, something less cynical. Their conclusion: They wrote it off as bland, but with strong dancing. It didn’t help that the Rita’s husband and marathon MC, Mick Hamilton, was exposed as a swarmy huckster who used and abused women and people. He was the person that drove the story forward, but was intensely unlikable. Even Kristen Chenowith, for whom this show was her Broadway debut, thought the show might have been something Broadway wasn’t yet ready for.
I would tend to agree. In 1997, the NY Times would write: “Mick is set up in tidy opposition to the show’s other male lead, Bill Kelly, a handsome, enigmatic exhibition pilot who falls hard for Rita, his partner in the marathon. You’re right in thinking there’s something otherworldly about this fellow, whose presence tends to set off angel chimes and campy, harmonic celestial voices. Borrowed from vintage movie fantasies like ”Stairway to Heaven,” he represents, as one of the show’s songs baldly puts it, Rita’s ”second chance” at the life she wants.” Back then, 20 years ago, they were seizing on the spiritual aspect of the show. But 2018 is the era of #MeToo, of woman standing up to harassment. It is an era where, on the UCLA campus, they just canned a history professor for such behavior. Today, the show comes across as Rita finally standing up to the manipulator in her life, and kicking him to the curb rather than continuing to put up with his abuse. The aviator’s mystical return is less for him to fulfill his romantic fantasy, but more as the universe providing that second chance, that angel on her shoulder showing Rita that she deserved better, and she can have better than the marathon life.
Seeing UCLA’s exhilarating production of Steel Pier makes me think that this is yet another show that is ripe for a Broadway revival. Instead of trotting back the old-chestnuts (I’m looking at you, Hello Dolly and the forthcoming My Fair Lady), explore some shows that may have been ahead of their times, that provide interesting and entertaining new commentary of today’s situations — such as Steel Pier or Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle. The world wasn’t ready for Chicago when it premiered in 1985; by the 1990s, the OJ trial had made it relevant. #MeToo makes this show relevant and something to be seen.
Under the direction of Adjunct Professor Jeremy Mann, Director of Singing for the UCLA Ray Bolger Musical Program, this production scintillates. There are little things that I presume are directorial touches: a sardonic look here, a playful pause there, aspects of timing and movement, or even background character pairing (I distinctly think that I saw hints of gay characters and a lesbian relationship, which I’m sure weren’t there in ’97), that elevated this production. This production was at the level of a musical I’d see on any mid-size or large stage in Los Angeles — and considering this was student talent — that’s quite a statement. This director deserves credit for molding this student team into a remarkable ensemble. He was aided in this endeavor by Christine Kellogg, who had to work with the student talent to master the art of 1930s dance and the wide variety of styles — and like any marathon, this show had the dancers dancing on-stage for much of the show. A lot of work, and a delight to watch. I contrast this with the recent Dublin Irish Dance I saw. At that show, there was precision, but not fun or joy. Here was dance precision and joy and fun.
The talented actors in this show I expect to see again and again in productions in Los Angeles, and am sure they will have further success on Broadway and other stages. At the top of that list was the lead for this show, Shelby Talley (FB), who played Rita Racine, Lindy’s Lovebird. This young woman could sing and dance spectacularly, and she truly captured the dramatic aspects of Rita. This was best seen by watching her face during songs like “Wet” or “Running in Place”, or in the opening number “Willing to Ride”. She was just a delight to watch.
Her romantic interest, Bill Kelly, was portrayed by James Olivas (FB). We’ve seen Olivas before in 5-Star Theatrical’s Joseph, and were impressed with him then. He had a lovely warm singing voice, great dancing, and a wonderful acting style that brought both humor and emotion to the role. Again, watch him closely during the “Wet” number, or his playfulness during “Second Chance”. A delight to watch.
The other male lead was Jake Levy (FB) as Rita’s secret husband and marathon MC, Mick Hamilton. Levy had the thankless job of being an unlikable character. He did this very well, capturing the smarminess of Mick, the anger, the hatred, and the drive, without the problems that seemingly plagued Gregory Harrison on Broadway. He had a good singing voice, as well as good comic timing, as demonstrated in his number “A Powerful Thing”.
In the second tier of characters we have a number of specialty characters. As Mr. Walker, Mick’s assistant and henchman, Nick McKenna (FB) showed a remarkable comic flair, especially during the aformentioned “A Powerful Thing” number — his humorous looks and reactions and singing during that number were just a delight. Another notable performer was Claudia Baffo (FB) as Shelby Stevens. Stevens is the “seen-it-all” oversexed professional marathoner. She captured this well in her specialty number “Everybody’s Girl”, as well as showing the character’s tender side during “Somebody Older”. She was also a strong dancer. A third notable second tier character was Molly Livingston (FB)’s Precious McGuire. This was Kristen Chenowith’s Broadway debut role, and Livingston would have done her proud. She captured both the voice and the humor behind “Two Little Words”, and was a remarkable dancer as well.
The remaining second tier characters don’t get singing highlights (technically, the character of Luke Adams (Shelby’s partner) (Ty Koeller (FB)) gets a harmonica solo, but that was covered by the orchestra — in particular, based on his FB, by Scott Senior (FB), who did an excellent job). They do, however, dance and perform like gangbusters. Notable amongst this tier were the “brother and sister team” of Bette Becker and Buddy Becker, portrayed by Katie Emery (FB) and Calvin Brady (FB). Both could dance up a storm, and I was particularly taken by Emery’s dancing. Brady’s Buddy was more of an enigma. For a minute, just given the look, I wasn’t sure if they were playing on the sexuality of the character; later, I thought they were making it out to be a more gay character. Nothing was said; this was performance and look along. I think it worked well, especially for that time. Also notable, in a similar vein, was Marlena Becker (FB)’s Dora Foster, whose dance partner was Olympic Champion Johnny Adel (Justin Baker (FB)). There appeared to be points where Dora was being comforted, in a “very close” fashion, by another female actor (I’m guessing Shelby Barry (FB)’s Hannah Misiano). Again, I’m not sure this was in the original, but I thought it was a nice, in the background, updating touch. Barry’s Hannah was partnered with Grant Hodges (FB)’s Dom Misiano. Rounding out the named dance couples was Precious McGuire’s partner, Happy McGuire, played by Michael Wells (FB). He had a very touching scene in “Somebody Older”.
Providing a singing backup to Mick Hamilton were “Mick’s Picks”, a singing trio consisting of Nicolette Norgaard (FB), Naama Shaham (FB), and Aliyah Imani Turner (FB). For most of the show, they don’t get to do more than sing and hold signs, however there were interesting flashes of character during some of the scenes in Act II that I really liked.
Rounding out the dancers were the members of the ensemble, who created rotating dance teams throughout the show. The ensemble consisted of Toni France (FB), Sara Gilbert (FB), Haleyann Hart (FB)†, Kelsey Kato (FB), Charles Platt (FB)†, Max Risch (FB), Brandon Root (FB)‡, Olly Sholotan (FB), and Kelsey Smith (FB). Of these folks, the one that sticks in my mind is Olly Sholotan, who did some remarkable acrobatic moves in his dancing. [†: Dance Captain; ‡: Fight Captain]
Music was provided by an onstage orchestra — quite apropos for a marathon in the Big Band era. The orchestra, under the music direction of Dan Belzer (FB), consisted of Sean Bart (FB) and Eric Kong (FB) [Keyboards]; Barry Saperstein (FB) [Drums]; Dorothy Micklea (FB) [Percussion]; Richard Adkins (FB) [Violin]; Beverly Shih [Viola]; Chris Ahn (FB) [Cello]; Jeff Takiguchi [Bass]; Rob Crosby (FB), Ian Dahlberg (FB), Phil Moore (FB), and Scott Senior (FB) [Reeds]; Dustin McKinney (FB) and Tim Rubottom (FB) [Trumpets]; Lori Stuntz (FB) and May Zeng [Trombones], and Julian Sazo [Horn]. The orchestra had a great big band sound.
Finally turning to the production and design credits. It should be noted that all production aspects have been executed by students enrolled in UCLA Department of Theatre Courses in scenery, costuming, lighting, sound, and advanced theatre laboratories. That said: The scenic design was by Tatiana Kuilanoff, and worked quite well: consisting of an area in front of the orchestra with a movable bandstand for Mick, and an upper level used for various purposes. Costume design was by Caitlin Kagawa and seemed appropriately period — in particular, the dresses for the ladies and the suspenders for the men. The sound design by Ryan Marsh was appropriately directional and there were some great sound effects; further, the amplification for the performers worked well. Zach Titterington‘s lighting design established mood well. Brynna Mason (FB) was the Stage Manager. There were loads of production staff credits, production crew credits, advisors, and such — all worked well together to do a great job.
Alas, I attended the last performance of Steel Pier at UCLA. Those of you who love Kander-Ebb should have been there; it was spectacular. This did put UCLA TFT on my RADAR, however, and I hope to be able to attend more of their shows. As a UCLA alumni (BS, ’82; MS, ’85), I wish I had known about this program during my years on campus — my theatregoing would have been much more than just going to Ackerman Union and buying tickets through the Mutual Agency for the Ahmanson.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB) in the West Adams district, a mini-subscription at the Saroya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), and as of Friday, Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
The last weekend of March is currently open.
April looks to be a busy month. It starts with the Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB) on Thursday April 5, followed by Love Never Dies at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) [as an aside, there was just a great interview with Glen Slater, the lyricist of that show, on Broadway Bullet that is well worth listening to]. The second weekend brings A Man for All Seasons” at Actors Co-op (FB). The third weekend brings Bad Jews at The Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB) on Friday, followed by The Hunchback of Notre Dame at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) (nee Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)) on Saturday, as well as our annual visit to the Original Renaissance Faire. The last weekend of April sees us travelling for a show, as we drive up to San Jose to see friends as well as Adrift in Macao at The Tabard Theatre Company (FB).
Continuing into May and June: The first weekend in May will bring School of Rock at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), with the following weekend bringing Soft Power at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The middle of May brings Violet at Actors Co-op (FB). The last weekend will hopefully bring a Nefesh Mountain concert at Temple Ramat Zion; the weekend itself is currently open. June — ah, June. That, my friends, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), including The Story of My Life from Chromolume Theatre (FB). Additionally in June we’re seeing the postponed Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), The Color Purple at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), and possibly Do Re Mi at MTW. The latter, however, is on a Sunday night in Long Beach, and so Fringing may win out. Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018!
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.