My husband finds the good in any situation. Here was his reaction to The Band Wagon, part of the Encores! series at City Center: “Well, it’s always nice to get out of the house.”
This re-working of the classic 1953 MGM musical within a musical, which starred Fred Astaire as washed-up Hollywood leading man Tony Hunter, would seem to have everything going for it: the Tony-Award winning Kathleen Marshall as director and choreographer; a sterling cast led by Brian Stokes Mitchell as Tony, and Laura Osnes in a much softened version of the dancer played in the movie by Cyd Charisse; a bright satirical script by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, here quipped up, and in some instances darkened, by Douglas Carter Beane. And most particularly, there’s a superlative Arthur Schwartz/Howard Dietz score that includes numbers like “By Myself,” “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “A Shine on Your Shoes” and, with some freshly discovered lyrics, “That’s Entertainment.”
The Band Wagon is thanks largely to Tony Sheldon, who plays Jeffrey Cordova, an impresario and scenery-chewing actor (he puts the ham in Hamlet), and the sublime Tracey Ullman as a librettist and lyricist who has long (and futilely) carried a torch for Tony Hunter. A high point of the production is a number called “The Pitch,” when Ullman and her husband and collaborator (the very good Michael McKean) synopsize the light, breezy musical they’ve planned for Tony’s comeback. It’s unfortunate that Jeffrey is fixed on a musical version of “Faust,” including a Beelzebub ballet set to “You and the Night and the Music.” It’s fortunate that cooler heads prevail.
Sad to report, the chief problem with The Band Wagon is Mitchell. It’s true that he doesn’t dance like Fred Astaire. Who does? But Mitchell doesn’t even come across like a particularly apt student. Thus, the number “Dancing in the Dark” is only half accurate. It’s staged on a dimly lit stage all right, but the movement is kept to a minimum. But even when Mitchell does what so very few can do as well – sing – numbers like “By Myself” and the aforementioned “Dancing in the Dark” lack both warmth and specificity.
“I like musicals,” one character defiantly announces close to the end of the show, as though daring others to disagree. I like them, too. I wish I’d liked this one better.