When the 1953 movie musical The Band Wagon came out on DVD three years ago, film critic Roger Ebert gave his take on a set of interviews with the surviving cast members. Their recollections, he said, suggest this was an unhappy shoot, colored by personal problems on and off the set. The ambivalence between stars Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse; the fractious relationship between director Vincente Minnelli and wife Judy Garland; actor Jack Buchanan's painful dental surgery: All reportedly contributed to the wet blanket that saturated rehearsals. “Still,” Ebert concluded, “a great musical emerged from the shambles, just as it does in the story.”
I'm not so sure The Band Wagon is a great musical in the historical sense, but it's a lot of fun. It pokes genteel humor at its Broadway cousins and their casts, whose personal struggles collide to create the same pall that may have hung over that soundstage. That's the cool thing about The Old Globe Theatre's Dancing in the Dark—it's not only based on The Band Wagon, it downright replicates the contentiousness and angst that mark Broadway behind the scenes. Just like the movie, this is much more than a romp through the wiles and ways of the live stage. There's a pool of flesh-and-blood characters with flesh-and-blood problems here, and they all get their measure of respect through some masterful writing and one magnificent flesh-and-blood scene design.
Fading movie-idol dancer Tony Hunter (Scott Bakula) is feeling the effects of overexposure and a public that stifles a yawn at the mention of his name. Desperation sends him to Broadway amid hopes of a comeback in a modest comedy—but pretentious director Jeffrey Cordova (Patrick Page) will promptly overreact, hiring prima ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Mara Davi) to co-star. The fur flies before long, but romance and the kindred Broadway spirit will help settle it. A pretty darn good show is at hand after all.
Nothing terribly exciting on paper, I agree—but author Douglas Carter Beane has thought of just about everything subtextually, from the grueling relationship between playwrights Lily and Les Martin (Beth Leavel and Adam Heller) to Hunter's wide-ranging back-story. Director Gary Griffin finds a lot to play with in such breadth, but he distorts several of the milder passages by treating them with equal exuberance (there's a potentially hilarious scene in which Macbeth is briefly confused with Brigadoon; it needs some serious toning down). Arthur Schwartz's music and Howard Dietz's lyrics occasionally suffer from the same problem, but music director Don York shrewdly treats those intervals with kid gloves, muting them in the process.
And, oh, for John Lee Beatty's set, which might as well be listed in the cast of characters. The pieces slide, dart and converge exactly as the mood dictates—and in no case do they seek to inject themselves into the story story so much as comment on it from afar. Beatty has created an absolutely brilliant backdrop, the thrust of the finest technical effort I've seen at The Globe in the last five seasons.
Bakula, 53, is every bit as lithe and youthful as he was in his Quantum Leap TV days more than 15 years ago—the figure he cuts is hardly that of a has-been like Tony. But that quality also keeps Tony above the fray, anchoring the other characters' pretense and despair and, thus, their believability. This is a very good piece with some splendid technical treatments, easily worthy of its recently extended closing date. Thie review is based on the opening-night performance of March 20. Dancing in the Dark runs through April 20 at The Old Globe Theatre mainstage, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park. $52-$69. 619-23-GLOBE.