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Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager in Never Gonna Dance
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
A team of seeming Broadway knowledgeables has adapted the goofy and glorious 1936 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers vehicle Swing Time into a flavorless bon-bon called Never Gonna Dance that only occasionally rises a notch or two above mediocrity. Credit where it's due: In an 11 o'clock ballroom number done to the show's title tune -- which Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields dreamed up on an especially inspired day -- the proceedings are lifted off the ground much as Noah Racey (the nominal male lead) swings Nancy Lemenager (the nominal female lead) in mesmerizing, high and wide circles.

Racey and Lemenager are unarguably proficient as dancers, but their plight as subs for the incomparable Astaire and Rogers partnership suggests a reverse twist on what plot there is in A Chorus Line. In that classic, the down-on-her-luck star Cassie has trouble fitting into a chorus line because she can't stop herself from standing out. In Never Gonna Dance Racey and Lemenager, for all their diligent work, look like chorus members handed assignments that are a mite too burdensome for them.

Racey, who plays a character called Lucky Garnett, makes a marginally better impression than Lemenager, who plays a character called Penny Carroll. But as they negotiate their earnest path through the tuner, both lack the qui-sait-quoi that marks Fred Astaire (whose voice was no great shakes) and Ginger Rogers (who had to learn to dance up to Astaire) as bona fide screen and stage magnets. While it may seem unfair for a reviewer to go after Racey and Lemenager so precipitately, the bald truth is that the success of enterprises like Never Gonna Dance is predicated on the presence of incandescent performers. By the way: Lemenager isn't helped much in her sallies by either costumer William Ivey Long, whose shop may simply be overworked these days, or by wig designer Paul Huntley. "Frumpy" isn't an inaccurate word for their contributions to the dancing lady's appearance. And "frumpy" also fits Robin Wagner's sets, which are meant to conjure various Manhattan locales and a Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania church.

In attempting to catch the 42nd Street-My One and Only wave, the creators of Never Gonna Dance have endeavored to follow the formula of those shows but have misunderstood and abused it. Where to start in enumerating the infractions? Maybe not with librettist Jeffrey Hatcher, whose narrative is no sappier than the Howard Lindsay/Allan Scott original in which a gambling hoofer bets that he can raise $25,000 in a month and falls in love with a dancing instructor while on his quest, only to run into trouble when his fiancée shows up to claim him. Hatcher changes many of the particulars, and his innovations are no better or worse as his Lucky and Penny fall in love and experience low-grade bumps on the road to a happy ending. Where Hatcher falls down is in the show's repartée. A typically lame exchange: Lemenager, explaining that she's an old-fashioned girl, says, "Me, I'm strictly a tea cozy." Lucky responds, "Lucky tea."

But though Hatcher's gags are often gag-worthy, a bigger gaffe may have been committed by choreographer Jerry Mitchell, whose most recent triumph is Hairspray. He is on record as saying that, having toiled with many actors and singers who move, he has increasingly longed to work with out-and-out dancers. But despite his having expertly crafted a series of generally entertaining sequences, including a dancing-on-girders segment for his leads, he's created an odd imbalance in Never Gonna Dance. Going through their paces, Racey and Lemenager are out-classed by colleagues Karen Ziemba (who, in the Helen Broderick role of the heroine's best friend, enlivens a second-act shimmy routine) and Deirdre Goodwin and Eugene Fleming (who play dance competitors for Lucky and Penny and who profusely exhibit the kind of style and personality that's noticeably lacking elsewhere.)

Deidre Goodwin and Eugene Fleming
in Never Gonna Dance
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
It's difficult to pinpoint who is accountable for another of the show's major transgressions: the puzzling (mis)use of the score. Since Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields wrote only six songs for the 105-minute Swing Time, it makes sense that material would be added for a two-act stage version. It also makes sense that Kern songs set by other lyricists would be selected. But why, for instance, have some of the wittiest lines in "A Fine Romance" been tossed while lyrics have been added that don't sound like Fields? David Pittu, playing the overactive bandleader Ricardo Romero, warbles a few South Americanized lines in which "sangria" is rhymed with "tortilla." By Dorothy Fields? In 1936?

Moreover, why has "The Song is You" -- one of the most beautiful love ballads ever written -- been given to Peter Gerety in the role of Wall-Street-broker-turned-post-Crash-bum Alfred J. Morganthal? Gerety is welcome just about every time he shoots out from the wings because he also has the comic style and charisma that the show needs, but he simply isn't suited to this great Kern-Oscar Hammerstein standard. Why has the melody for "Waltz in Swing Time," which Astaire and Rogers danced to rapturously, been demoted to an entr'acte offering? And why is "Bojangles of Harlem," the only number Astaire ever danced in blackface, used strictly as an instrumental to which Goodwin and Fleming strut their sizzling stuff? (Presumably, someone decided that a blackface number -- even one that was brilliantly conceived as a tribute to Bill Robinson -- was far too politically incorrect to be performed as written.)

Maybe the producers, worried about getting a return on their large investment, raised eyebrows at some of the possible inclusions? (Edgar Bronfman, Jr., who lost a Seagram's family bundle in selling out to Vivendi a few years ago, is one of the producers.) Maybe Mitchell decided what songs would work and what wouldn't according to what he wanted to choreograph. Maybe the decision maker was director Michael Greif, who keeps the cast moving efficiently but hasn't been able to switch on Racey's and Lemenager's inner lights or to calm down Peter Bartlett as a twittering dance-studio manager called Pangborn (after the wonderful Franklin Pangborn). Most likely, the responsibility lies in some combination of the above; but whoever is to blame, and Racey's frequent vocal flatting aside, the end result is that Jerome Kern is not being honorably served.

As the show unfolds and Lucky's lucky quarter turns him into a rich man, he tries to lose money (don't ask why!) by investing larger and larger bundles in the stock market. Everything he touches turns into gains. Finally, Gerety as Morganthal races in and says, "Lucky! Good news! I've put all your money into a Broadway show! You're ruined!" He'd be indisputably right were he talking about this show.

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