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Never Gonna Last?

A few words in defense of Never Gonna Dance and some Frank observations about Our Sinatra. logo
Nancy Lemenager and Noah Racey in Never Gonna Dance
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Never Gonna Dance features a treasure trove of Jerome Kern's greatest melodies paired with the lyrics of some of the most gifted musical theater writers in history. Its source material is arguably one of the two most beloved of all the Astaire/Rogers movies, Swing Time (Top Hat being the other). The show is alive with some of the most exciting dance numbers this side of Contact, and that's not all folks: Never Gonna Dance has a cast of superlative supporting players that could keep the Titanic afloat -- the boat AND the musical! And while its two leads, Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager, are no Fred and Ginger (who is?), they are terrific dancers. Yet, for all of this, the show is in trouble because the critical community has not embraced it. But, really, what's not to like?

The show's only glaring flaw is that neither Racey nor Lemenager have Broadway singing chops; their voices are rather thin and undistinguished. To a large extent, however, director Michael Greif and choreographer Jerry Micthell protect their two stars from too much vocal exposure and, instead, get them dancing whenever and wherever they can. In much the same way that makeup can hide flaws and turn plain features into beauty, Greif and Mitchell minimize the show's imperfections and maximize its virtues.

When a classic movie is adapted to the stage, the new version is invariably compared to its source and found wanting. Most of us don't like our sacred cows milked for a profit. In this instance, however, the show's book by Jeffrey Hatcher offers a noticeable improvement over the original. The basic plot remains: A dancer/gambler named Lucky promises that he'll earn $25,000 in New York City and then return to his small town to marry the girl he left at the altar. Off he goes to Manhattan with his lucky quarter to make his fortune. Instead, he meets a dance instructor named Penny, and now the last thing he wants is to make $25,000. Except he can't help it. His lucky quarter is working overtime, comically bringing him wealth that he is desperately trying to avoid -- this in the middle of the Great Depression.

We happen to adore Swing Time, but Hatcher has written a witty book that respects its antecedent yet builds a firmer structure that allows the show's secondary characters to shine more fully. A subplot concerning a stockbroker turned Depression-era bum (played to comic perfection by Peter Gerety) who falls in love with our heroine's sidekick (another Tony nomination for Karen Ziemba?) is as funny as it is touching. Peter Bartlett is deliciously outrageous in his portrayal of the owner of the Swing Time Dance Studio (called Mr. Pangborn in an hommage to Franklin Pangborn, the prissy character actor who may be seen in so many films of the 1930s and '40s). And David Pittu has great fun as Lucky's rival for Penny, a Latin lover named Ricardo Romero who never travels anywhere without his backup singers. The dance studio chief and Romero are based on characters in the film but both are given more room in the stage version -- and both get lots of big, well-earned laughs.

There is nothing at stake in this musical but a good time. From the inspired Grand Central Station extravaganza built around "I Won't Dance" to "The Way You Look Tonight," performed by Lucky and Penny on top of a skyscraper still under construction, the show is aglow with one spectacular dance number after another. Again, what's not to like?


Tony DeSare, Hilary Kole, and Adam James in Our Sinatra
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Chairman of the Bored

There's something fundamentally unsatisfying about Our Sinatra: A Musical Celebration. The show is obviously popular: It opened at the Oak Room and went on to have a multi-year run in various rooms around New York, then traveled the hinterlands and has recently returned to New York to continue to remind Sinatra fans of Ol' Blue Eyes's greatness. But the show at Birdland is schematic rather than dynamic, giving us the barest outline of Sinatra's career and the reasons why so many of us revere him. At the end of the day, Our Sinatra doesn't illuminate its subject, it merely trades on his legend.

The cast of three -- including one of the show's original co-creators, Hilary Kole -- certainly tries to pack in as many Sinatra standards as possible. Nostalgia is the order of the day here, partly because the other two members of the cast have voices that resemble Frank's to one degree or another. Indeed, Tony DeSare, who also plays the piano for the trio, sounds so much like a young Sinatra that you almost want to close your eyes and imagine it's him. The fact is, you might just as well close your eyes because DeSare shows nothing on his face when he's singing. An acting career is not in his future; he relies entirely on his voice, and that's not enough.

Adam James also sounds like Sinatra but doesn't push the vocal resemblance quite so hard. He's also a better actor than DeSare but it's laughable to have this adorable, boyish guy sing "Ol' Man River." Yes, Sinatra himself sounded idiotic when singing this classic, but why compound that error by assigning it to a cute young kid? There are plenty of other Sinatra songs that might have replaced this errant selection; director Kurt Stamm should never have allowed it.

Hilary Kole has grown into the show and sings with more emotion and connection to the lyrics than she did when we first saw her several years ago. There are moments when she really impresses. A beautiful young woman with a good voice, she is nonetheless still prone to pose and to posture. We'd be curious to see her in a serious musical, working with a strong director; here, she seems more Las Vegas than Broadway. The show is Their Sinatra, not Ours.

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