The Band Wagon
An updated version of an MGM classic gets a showing at Encores!
"You know this show is— really very silly," says modern choreographer Paul Byrd (played by the delectably mean Michael Berresse) as he glowers out at the audience in The Band Wagon. "It won't mean a thing to anyone in fifty years." Actually, most of the songs in this special Encores! presentation at New York City Center are significantly older than that. Yet they sound shiny, fresh, and full of life in a fabulous new rendering presented in typical Encores! fashion — more than a staged reading, less than a full production, with a big onstage orchestra. You won't be able to resist tapping your toes along to this infectiously fun event, the numbers from which you'll be humming for days. As the show's most famous song states, That's Entertainment!
The Band Wagon is based on the 1931 Broadway revue by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz, which starred Fred and Adele Astaire. Several songs from that show were later used in the 1953 MGM film The Band Wagon, written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, directed by Vincente Minnelli). This new treatment by Douglas Carter Beane (Cinderella) maintains much of their original backstage plot, with a few new twists along the way.
Tony Hunter (Brian Stokes Mitchell) is a washed-up song-and-dance man fleeing Hollywood for the familiar trappings of New York City. His friend, the larger-than-life British actor-director Jeffrey Cordova (Tony Sheldon), has promised to cast him in a new Broadway show and has enlisted husband-and-wife songwriting team Lily and Lester Martin (Tracey Ullman and Michael McKean). Byrd will join the creative team and his young girlfriend, dancer Gabrielle Gerard (Laura Osnes), will star opposite Tony. The gang's all here; they just need a show.
The Martins pitch a lighthearted story about a poor shoeshine guy who convinces a rich New York real estate developer to throw a party for him so his girlfriend from Louisiana thinks he's a bigwig. Cordova and Byrd see in this tale the seed of a far heavier drama: a modern Faust. As rehearsals begin, it seems like no one is on the same page.
"Let's dance," Mitchell exclaims while clutching a showman's cane at the apex of the carefree tune "A Brand New Suit." Immediately, an army of black-clad modern dancers invades the space around him, thrusting and writhing like they're in a Bosch painting choreographed by Martha Graham.
Director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall stages this collaborative dissonance with great relish, employing clashing styles to create a show within a show that feels like the product several competing personalities. This is awfully ironic, considering that's exactly what she's successfully doing for the actual show. Comden & Green, Beane, Dietz & Schwartz, Minnelli, and film choreographer Michael Kidd: Marshall borrows a bit from all, seamlessly blending the old with the new in an event that always feels straight out of the golden age of musical theater.
Osnes, in particular, exudes the charm and optimism of a bygone era of performers. Her radiant soprano fits perfectly, as if Dietz and Schwartz wrote the songs just for her. Mitchell is a genuine leading man, with all the grace and dignity of Fred Astaire before him. McKean and Ullman convincingly portray a couple in a long-term marriage, with all the requisite ambivalence. They're also very funny.
Augmenting the mirth, Tony Sheldon (who just stepped into the production a few weeks ago) turns out to be a very fortunate replacement. Sheldon is musical comedy personified, drawing laughs practically every moment he steps onstage. "Let's all pretend to be Hillbillies," the Australian actor says, affecting an FDR-like mid-Atlantic dialect for which it is impossible to keep a straight face. "We'll blacken out our teeth and the like. Date a cousin if you want!"
While some of Beane's sassy quips are groan-inducing and superfluous, he has managed to accomplish something that Comden and Green could not: He's made sense of the show within the show. In the film, it's never entirely clear how a song about triplets and another one about a Louisiana hayride fit into a story about a mystery novelist. Beane illuminates all with his revised book, so we don't have to suspend our disbelief when we're told the show is a hit.
I won't explain how. You'll just have to see for yourself — if not at City Center, then hopefully in a future presentation. While William Ivey Long's costumes and Derek McLane's set preserve some of the Technicolor magic of the Minnelli film, one gets the sense that they could do so much more. This delightful update of a classic theatrical property deserves a full production on Broadway.