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Theatre Review (San Diego): Dancing in the Dark by Dietz, Schwartz, and Beane at The Old Globe

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Dancing in the Dark is the latest pre-Broadway tryout to come to the Old Globe. It is based on the Vincent Minnelli movie The Bandwagon, which starred the inimitable Fred Astaire and the gorgeous Cyd Charisse.

The screenplay of The Bandwagon was by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, based on a revue by the same name, which had some wonderful songs by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz (“Dancing in the Dark” and “Something to Remember You By”) and a series of sketches by George S. Kaufman. The original revue starred both Fred and Adele Astaire.

Many attempts have been made in the past few years to turn movie musicals into stage shows: Hairspray, Cry Baby, Saturday Night Fever, and Xanadu, to name a few. Some have been successful, others not so much. As you can see, the source materials for these transformations typically have some already familiar music, but their screenplays need to be reconfigured to become the book for a musical.

In adapting The Bandwagon, one faces the insurmountable fact that Fred Astaire was irreplaceable and, to a lesser extent, so was Cyd Charisse. In Douglas Carter Beane's new book, he has replaced the lead characters – a has-been dancer from movie musicals (Astaire) and a ballerina (Charisse) – with an Oscar-winning ex-musical comedy star (Scott Bakula) and a modern dancer (Mara Davi).

Scott Bakula is a good musical performer who can move well, but he lacks the vulnerability and the comedic ability of an Astaire, and his OK dancing doesn’t live up to a show called Dancing in The Dark, which at its heart is still a show about dance. To accommodate this casting – having wisely given up on ever finding a new Astaire – Beane has squeezed and tortured the plot, transforming a light ethereal piece into a more complex story. It's layered with a back story involving alcoholism, infidelity, a mean-spirited choreographer, etc., which tends to drag the whole piece down and place the songs and dances into contexts that make them seem ridiculous.

In the movie, the modern dance itself was good; it was the concept (a musical Faust) and technical disaster that doomed any attempt to put it on. The composer couple were hardworking artists who wanted their musical to work, while in the new musical, they are always wrangling; jealousy, unresolved feelings, and alcoholism are brought in to give them depth but instead, at times, just make them annoying. The actual number “Dancing in the Dark” was, in the film, an elegant stroll in the park that turned into a dance, while in Beane's book it becomes the 10:30 number, replacing the original big closing dance, a beautiful ballet that starred Cyd Charisse.

My biggest problem, though, is that the story that forms the basis of the new musical is so awful it makes everyone involved seem like an untalented idiot. On top of that, the sets look like they are from a stock production, the costumes are unattractive, and the chorus needs to be triple its size.

Despite all the above, I found myself enjoying the characters by the end. This is because the performers are all first-rate. Bakula does a terrific job with what he has been given. Mari Davi is a good singer and dancer. The only characters that really work as is, however, are Hal Meadows, simply played by Benjamin Howes, and Jeff Cordova, the scene stealing classical actor, smashingly played by Patrick Page. The plot twist making them lovers is not a distraction. Far from seeming artificially laid on, it is actually is one of the few nice additions to the original story.

What is left of the original is what works best. This musical needs to be rethought in light of what made the movie work so well. While the producers may not be able to find a Fred Astaire, and Bakula would still be fine, they should get rid of all the heavy back stories. Then they could once again find the elegance that drew audiences into the story in the first place. As it stands now, I can’t get on the bandwagon.

At The Old Globe until April 13.

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