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Dancing in the Dark

A top-drawer cast, led by Scott Bakula and Mara Davi, is the saving grace of this hit-and-miss adaptation of the MGM musical The Band Wagon. logo
Mara Davi and Scott Bakula in Dancing in the Dark
(© Craig Schwartz)
San Diego's Old Globe Theatre has launched many musicals on their way to Broadway in the past two decades, most recently A Catered Affair, but it remains to be seen if there's a bright future for Dancing in the Dark, playwright Douglas Carter Beane's hit-and-miss adaptation of the beloved 1953 MGM musical The Band Wagon.

The show's action, which now takes place in 1953, is placed in motion by egomaniacal Shakespearean actor/director Jeffrey Cordova (Patrick Page), who is looking to expand his horizons to the more financially rewarding musical stage. To that end, he arranges a backstage meeting with down-on-his-luck Hollywood musical star Tony Hunter (Scott Bakula) and the award-winning husband and wife team of Lester and Lily Martin (Adam Heller and Beth Leavel).

However, there is bad blood between the threesome, as we see in flashbacks to their early success as revue performers 19 years earlier. Tony left for Hollywood, promising to come back to the stage and to Lily, his then-lover, but he never did. Lester married Lily on the rebound, and while their writing partnership has been successful, their marriage has never seemed as solid. Tony's return brings up old feelings in Lily.

As outlined in the musical number of "The Pitch," Lily and Lester's plot for the new show tells of a poor shoeshine boy who tries to impress his visiting Louisiana girlfriend by passing off a millionaire skyscraper builder and his friends as his own. Artistic differences over the project rear their ugly head when Cordova gets sucked into the avant-garde mode by Paul Byrd (Sebastian La Cause), the modern dance master he hires as choreographer. Soon, Lily's simple story becomes a musical version of Faust.

Beane has succeeded in giving the show a second act with plenty of conflict by having the playwrights' marriage go on the rocks, yet the script still feels unfinished. Many of the songs seem to have just been thrown into the mix, but do not necessarily progress the show's plot. However, two of the MGM film's highlights, "Triplets" and "I Love Louisa," fit perfectly into the 1930s flashback scenes. On the downside, there seem to be as many reprises and continuations of songs than there are songs themselves

Gary Griffin's direction is solid, but staid and boring, and choreographer Warren Carlyle's dances run the gamut from tap to modern to ballet and ballroom. The title song's staging, with chandeliers overhead and glorious ball gowns, is classy, but too little too late. Ultimately, what this show needs is a director with Jeffrey Cordova's flair or Susan Stroman's inventiveness.

The show's saving grace is the top-drawer cast. It's particularly great to see Bakula back to his theatrical roots, in really fine voice with graceful dance moves and lovely comic timing. He makes "By Myself" sound new and fresh. Mara Davi, as Paul's ballerina lover and Tony's leading lady Gabrielle, is a real triple threat -- and delivers a deeply felt performance. Page chews the scenery with great elan and nearly steals the show; but Leavel ties him with her magnificent deadpan comic flair. The chorus of singers and dancers really has the feel of a theatrical troupe out on the road, trying to pull a troubled show together.

While Dancing in the Dark sometimes lives up to its famous tune, "That's Entertainment," it needs to be more consistently entertaining before making its move to the Great White Way.

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