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'Never Gonna Dance' evokes Fred and Ginger

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP   |   Jan. 3, 2004 at 4:55 AM   |   Comments

NEW YORK, Jan. 3 (UPI) -- "Never Gonna Dance," the new Broadway musical adaptation of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' 1936 RKO film, "Swing Time," is a lovable homage to the romantic musical comedy of yore with a score to die for by Jerome Kern.

Anyone in love with Hollywood's idea of a love story danced as well as acted, arch but remarkably innocent at heart, should rush to the Broadhurst Theater to see two talented young actor-dancers, Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager, bring Fred and Ginger to life, or at least to a respectable facsimile thereof.

No one can ever really fill those four dancing shoes, but Racey and Lemenager come to within a half shoe size of it. Racey is handsome and guileless and totally involved in the role of Lucky Garnett, an engaged-to-be-married hoofer who falls in love with another girl. Lemenager is lovely to look and easy to love as that other girl, Penny Carroll, a naive dancer who has gotten herself involved with a phony but flattering Latin nightclub star.

Of course Lucky gets out of marrying Margaret Chalfont (Deborah Leamy) at the last moment and Penny is able to dump Ricardo Romero (David Pittu) just in time, guaranteeing a happy ending and a standing ovation from the Broadhurst audience. It would seem to be a perfect show if you had never seen "Swing Time."

But if you have seen the film, you will miss Fred and Ginger's sophistication, something William Ivey Long's elegant costumes cannot bestow on Racey and Lemenager and direction by Michael Greif ("Hairspray," "The Full Monty") isn't able to bring out. They dance like Hollywood stars, especially against a wall of mirrors, getting every dip and lift just right, but rarely attain the gorgeous lyricism and never emit the sensuality of the originals in the roles.

Since Racey is given a number of opportunities at solo dancing that are delightfully funny and unconstrained, he tends to dominate the show, and that is not a bad thing. An actor and choreographer in his own right, he was in the original cast of "Thoroughly Modern Millie" on Broadway and seems destined for even greater roles than that of Lucky if there is any is any justice left in the theater.

Jeffrey Hatcher's reworking of the film plot introduces an amateur talent show with a cash prize of $25,000 organized by Major Bowes, a major radio show personality of Depression era America. Lucky and Penny's chief competition is a pair of black dancers, Spud (Eugene Fleming) and Velma (Deirdre Goodwin), who pose as hick amateurs from the sticks. Fleming and Goodwin supply the sexiness missing in Racey and Lemenager's dancing.

Not all of the Kern music is from "Swing Time," for which he had Dorothy Fields as lyricist. Interpolated painlessly into the film score that already includes such Kern-Fields standards as "Pick Yourself Up," "The Way You Look Tonight," "A Fine Romance," and "Never Gonna Dance" are 10 of the composer's songs written with lyricists Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, P.G. Wodehouse, Jimmy McHugh, Otto Harbach, and Oscar Hammerstein II.

Choreographer Jerry Mitchell had a full plate concocting wonderful duets for Racey and Lemenager (based on the original choreography by Astaire and Hermes Pan), as well as Fleming and Goodwin, and ensemble dances for the full cast. Some of his best work goes into numbers created for Karen Ziemba, one of the finest dancers on Broadway, in the role of Penny's wisecracking sidekick, Mabel. Ziemba lights up the stage whenever she is on.

Greif, best known on Broadway as director of "Rent," moves his huge cast of nearly 40 actors and dancers through complex scenes with the assurance of a real pro. William Ivey Long's pastel sets artfully lit by Paul Gallo are an art deco toast to New York with scenes ranging from Grand Central Terminal to Central Park to Harlem to soaring city skylines.

One of the show's highlights has Lucky and Penny dancing on structural steel I-beams atop an unfinished skyscraper, a real thriller as they jump from beam to beam, whirling and spinning in gravity-defying dance patterns 5 feet above the stage floor, something that even Fred and Ginger never attempted.

It's the showstopper to end all showstoppers and one of the magic moments of this joyful show that has you leaving the theater humming its tunes, just like the old days on Broadway.

© 2004 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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