Book by David Thompson, music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, conceived by Scott Ellis, Susan Stroman and David Thompson
“Another Marathon / Another dead on my feet / another time clock to beat” sings Sarah Galbraith as Rita Racine near the beginning of Steel Pier. Just as Ron Hutchinson’s Dead on Her Feet ends its run at the Arcola, Paul Taylor-Mills presents Kander and Ebb’s dance marathon musical south of the river.
This 1997 musical, which, despite a clutch of Tony Award nominations, ran for only 76 performances after opening on Broadway, is less concerned with the economics and stresses of the 1930s, when it is set, than with the more personal conflicts. Like Hutchinson’s play, it does show how those who sought to benefit from running them could be as caught in their trap as the hopeful contestants, but the dancers in this Atlantic City contest are often looking for a break into show business rather than just avoiding the breadline.
The sound of aeroplanes joins that of the trains overhead as the audience assembles. When the show starts, one swoops low overhead and pilot Bill Kelly appears. He picks up the flying jacket that’s been lying on the concrete at the centre of the traverse stage and, replying to someone we haven’t heard, confirms “I understand, I’ve got three weeks.”
Bill has a raffle ticket in his pocket that won him a dance with “Lindy’s Lovebird”. That’s Rita, who had been performing her act at the air show where he had been competing. She got the name from being the first person to kiss Lindberg when he landed.
With the swish of a parachute silk curtain, we are transported with him to the Steel Pier dance hall where Rita is waiting for her dance partner and Bill puts himself forward as a replacement. But Rita is involved in a con. She is actually married to the contest's promoter and MC; the whole contest is contrived and crooked. She’s been promised that this will be the last one in which she has to compete, but she is being conned to by her husband Mick Hamilton.
As Rita finds herself increasingly drawn to Bill, he seems to offer the escape she is seeking. Along with the hopes of the other contests, you can read this as a metaphor for everyone’s wish to escape from our problems, economic and otherwise, but fantasies don’t solve problems; you have to personally surmount them.
The plot centres on the triangle of Rita, Mick and Bill. Ian Knauer makes a suave, confident MC, strongly leading some of the numbers, and in contrast Jay Rincon’s stunt pilot is much gentler and charming with just the right kind of romantic looks. It is Rita, however, who is the more developed character and Sarah Galbraith gives a powerful performance both vocally and emotionally.
The other couples all have clearly defined relationships, but Aimee Atkinson as attention-grabbing Shelby Stevens, Lisa Anne-Wood as her rival Precious McGuire and Ian Kirton as Mick’s sidekick Mr Walker make the most of their opportunities. However, the three leads part, this is very much an ensemble piece with a talented group of singers and dancers delivering a show full of vitality in numbers for which Richard Jones’s choreography ranges from the social dances of the thirties to the balletic, plus a stop-start-slow-motion presentation of the foot race that was a feature of those marathon competitions.
David Shields’s design glams up one end of the theatre as the band platform of the dance hall and a few touches of silver art deco framing add further period flavour. The playing space is kept clear for the dances which miraculously fit into the small space. Costumes provide more glitz and colour and the suitcases containing the dancers’ belongings touted around with them are used to sit on and create a dream aeroplane with the addition of a twirling umbrella.
The show seems delightfully unmiked and, though I’m told the band under Angharad Sanders sometimes swamped the singers at the press show, the balance seemed fine when I saw it the next night (and I was sitting closest to the band). So that has been sorted.
This is not a musical up there with the same team’s Cabaret and Chicago. The rather sentimental fantasy doesn’t quite fit with the stark reality of exhaused dancers, but it is musically diverse and enjoyable and this cast delivers it with conviction in Paul Taylor-Mills’s production.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton