This stage version of the Arthur Schwartz, Howard Dietz musical THE BAND WAGON is different from past City Center Encores productions. THE BAND WAGON was a classic example of a lost theatrical form, the Broadway revue, which really was a sophisticated form of vaudeville, an evening of song, dance and satirical sketches. In 1953, the Arthur Freed musical wing of MGM took the songs Schwartz and Dietz had written for the revue, added some other Schwartz-Dietz songs including "That's Entertainment" written for the film and pasted them into a new Betty Comden-Adolph Green backstage story. The result is one of the most delightful film musicals ever made, greatly because of the wonderful score.
City Center Encores has created a new stage musical out of the film with a new book by Douglas Carter Beane based on the Comden-Green screenplay. The numbers have been rearranged. For instance "When There's A Shine on Your Shoes" opens the film, but serves as the final big number in this version.
The story is basically the same. Tony Hunter (Brian Stokes Mitchell in the Fred Astaire role), a Hollywood has been, looks to recharge his career by starring in a Broadway show. He goes to his old friends Lester and Lily Martin (Michael McKean and Tracey Ullman) to write a show for him. Lily still holds a candle for Tony and Lester knows it. Old friend, actor-director Jeffrey Cordova (Tony Sheldon), is brought in to direct. Unfortunately Jeffrey wants to create a serious musical that will make an artistic statement. He brings in an overly earnest choreographer (Michael Berresse) whose girlfriend Gabriele (Laura Osnes) will be the leading lady. The show is bound to be a disaster. The choreography is even more sombre than Martha Graham's work and Jeffrey's attempts to create a serious musical have the audience running for the aisles. Tony will save the day and get the ingenue and Broadway will get a fun musical. Beane's book is clever--Beane is always clever--but there's too much of it. Encores usually pares down the books of classic musicals to the minimum needed to tell the story and justify the songs. Here we have long book scenes that desperately need editing.
As usual, Kathleen Marshall has staged with great flair. Her parody of the most hackneyed cliches of modern dance is hilarious and her big numbers are crowd pleasers. The cast couldn't be better. Brian Stokes Mitchell is totally winning and sings his big ballads beautifully. Laura Osnes sings prettily and does what she can with a cardboard ingenue role. The comic leads, McKean, Ullman and Sheldon couldn't be better. It's a delight to see Tracey Ullman in a musical. The orchestra is smaller than usual with Encores productions, but makes a good sound.
The Times gave The Band Wagon a blah review, but I have found myself in disagreement with many of the recent Times reviews of musicals. Our audience loved it! How could you not love that score?
THE BAND WAGON. City Center Encores. November 16, 2014.