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The Band Wagon

Pleasant but underwhelming theatrical adaptation of the MGM classic musical, with a lively second act, and a second lead that steals the show.

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Brian Stokes Mitchell, Laura Osnes and Tony Sheldon in a scene from “The Band Wagon” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

“A clown with his pants falling down, Or the dance that’s a dream of romance, Or the scene where the villain is mean. That’s entertainment!” is dynamically performed by the highly animated Tony Sheldon, shortly into the first act of The Band Wagon. It is a welcome, early jolt to this pleasant but ultimately underwhelming enterprise. It was only the first of several scenes that he seized, on the way to stealing the show.

The mature Mr. Sheldon made his mark on Broadway and around the world by creating the role of the transsexual Bernadette in the musical Priscilla, Queen of The Desert. With his regal mane of gray hair, highly expressive face, limber physicality, superb comic timing and marvelous singing voice, he embodies star quality. As the egomaniacal director and actor Jeffrey Cordova, his appearance here is a cause for joy. He is hilariously introduced while acting as Hamlet, with doublet, hose, and a black pageboy wig that barely conceals his gray locks while framing his weathered face. Later on, he appears as The Devil, and also as a lock jawed upper-class American tycoon.

The show is adapted from the 1953 film directed by Vincente Minnelli from an original, characteristically witty screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The fabulous score is by composer Arthur Schwartz and lyricist Howard Dietz and contains numerous perennial standards of The American Popular Songbook.

It is considered to be one of the great works of MGM studio’s golden age of movie musicals. Fred Astaire starred as Tony Hunter, a washed-up Hollywood movie star retreating to New York City to restart his career in a Broadway musical.

Besides “That’s Entertainment,” there is also “Dancing in The Dark,” “By Myself,” “You and The Night and the Music,” “I Love Louisa,” “I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plan,” and “A Shine on Your Shoes.” These were all first heard in several of Schwartz and Dietz’s Broadway shows of the 1930’s, including the 1931 revue, The Band Wagon, that starred Fred and Adele Astaire.

Encores!, known for reviving neglected Broadway musicals for limited runs, is presenting the show. Here, it has strayed from its mission by producing this new adaption of a classic film musical, billed as “A Special Event,” with mixed results. The first act drags with exposition and setting up complications that are sluggishly rendered. The second act is lively and very enjoyable.

While remaining relatively faithful to the plot and spirit of the film, the book writer, playwright Douglas Carter Beane, has done a very good job in structurally adapting its script for the stage. The plot has been condensed, simplified and theatrically reimagined. The revelation of two characters as being gay is a very well-handled new twist.

Michael McKean, Tony Sheldon and Tracey Ullman in a scene from “The Band Wagon” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

However, he typically adds numerous zingers that are supposed to be funny and that land with a thud. “I’ll have The Dramatists Guild Special. Hemlock.” “‘Don’t quote The Scottish play.’ ‘Brigadoon?'” “I’m not Brooks Brothers. I’m Russ and Daughters.”

Kathleen Marshall’s choreography often lacks a wow factor, especially in the several spoofs of pretentious modern dance that are short and not as funny as intended. However, there are bright spots. “Triplets,” memorable in the film, is wonderfully recreated here, with three of the actors dressed in ruffled baby outfits, with their legs concealed, to appear as squabbling infants. “Louisiana Hayride,” as an ensemble number, set at a country estate is a terrific highlight. “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan,” with top hat, white tie, tails and canes, is a very fine tap number. Marshall’s direction purposefully keeps the show moving but only occasionally creates excitement.

Longtime Broadway leading man Brian Stokes Mitchell makes use of his tremendous voice and starry presence, but is often laidback to the point of stolidity as the fading movie star. Laura Osnes is charming and highly talented but makes little impression as the show’s love interest, Gabrielle Gerard.

With jet black hair, goatee, black clothes, and wry delivery, Michael Berresse scores as the conniving choreographer. Don Stephenson comically makes the most of his small role as the director’s assistant.

Michael McKean is delightful as the cantankerous composer. Playing his lyricist wife, enduring comic fixture Tracey Ullman does her familiar broad American accent and scrunched up face routine, but gives an effective performance.

Costume consultant William Ivey Long has the cast in suitably accurate looking garments, circa 1950, that range from drab to colorful, including zoot suits. The simple painted backdrops, especially the country estate, and abstract Manhattan skylines, skillfully give the impression of being from a Broadway musical of that era, and are the work of scenic consultant Derek McLane. Everything is well lit by lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski.

Musically the score is well served by The Encores! Orchestra, under the direction of Todd Ellison, and by Larry Hochman’s orchestrations.

Overall, this version of The Band Wagon is mildly entertaining, and is enhanced by its gorgeous score and the sensational performance of Tony Sheldon.

The Band Wagon (November 6 – 16, 2014)
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.nycitycenter.org
Running time: two and a half hours with one intermission

Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (690 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for Theaterscene.net.

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