BWW Review: STEEL PIER at University Of Utah Department Of Theatre

BWW Review: STEEL PIER at University Of Utah Department Of TheatreLife is a party
Why don't you come
To the steel pier?
No one's ever gloomy or glum
At the steel pier

John Kander and Fred Ebb, the longest-running musical-theater collaborators, razzle-dazzled with CABARET and CHICAGO. The shows are inarguably among Broadway's best musicals ever -- and the two longest-running Broadway revivals of book musicals. Kander and Ebb, from THE ACT to ZORBA, never wrote a score that wasn't provocative, moving, and hugely entertaining.

On the heels of the local productions of KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN and a gender-bending CABARET, comes a neglected Kander-Ebb work, illustrating what vibrant theater the Salt Lake Valley offers educated theatergoers.

At the University of Utah, STEEL PIER is irresistibly infectious. The university's fearless Theatre Department, the closest the state has to a conservatory actor-training program, entertainingly stages the regional premiere of this eleventh Kander-Ebb musical, following first-in-state productions like SPRING AWAKENING, AMERICAN IDIOT, ECLIPSED, and DOGFIGHT.

As illustrated by lyrics to the title song quoted above, which are not so much an invitation as a warning, STEEL PIER unabashedly shares common themes to CABARET and CHICAGO: revealing the underbelly of the tawdry side of show business and the minefield that love is.

Beyond the vivid direction and choreography by Theater Department Head Denny Berry, the strength of this production is the casting of each role. The Broadway veteran, who stages international productions of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA as Hal Prince's close associate, emphasizes the multiple different characterizations written into the script.

In Depression-era America, desperate young people were lured into entering dance marathons to win hearts, corporate sponsorship, and a jackpot in the harsh, three-week long, non-stop competition. Contestants dream of not only a $2,000 prize but fame and escape, paralleling the C-list celebrities and contrived romances of today's reality shows -- years before there were similar exploitative TV programming.

Mikki Reeve expressively plays hard-luck contestant Rita Rachine, romantically torn between the emcee (played by assistant professor Robert Scott Smith), Mick Hamilton, and handsome fly boy Bill Kelley (Bailey Cummings), who mysterious turns up as Rita's new dance partner. Reeve has a pretty voice and impressively acts the demanding lead role. Her talents are joyously showcased in "Willing to Ride" and the desolate "Running in Place."

Cummings affably plays Bill, with strong and clear vocals. He is gifted the soaring ballad "First You Dream" (covered on Audra McDonald's most recent solo CD), the show's strongest composition. As the sleezy Mick, Smith could have been more smarmy and compelling as Rita's secret husband pulling the strings to ensure she is the marathon winner. He is fine in "Powerful Thing."

STEEL PIER gives the 28 company members individual opportunity to shine just as brightly as the leads, either as a unique character or a ensemble dancer. Playing the part with delectable tartness is Jamie Landrum, singing a showstopping ode to promiscuity, "Everybody's Girl" (Kander and Ebb at their naughtiest, baudiest, funniest best with the lyric "I could never be a cowhand's girl / I just can't keep my calves together").

Other winning performers are Alice Ryan as Precious and Patrick Castle as her husband Happy, farm-raised yokel roles written with hilarious Utah references. Ryan is enchanting in "Two Little Words," which Kristin Chenoweth introduced in her Broadway musical debut. ("I still have a little thing in my craw about [the show] not getting what it deserved all those years ago on Broadway," she has said. "To this day, I pull out the CD and listen to the score, and I think, 'Has anybody else listened to this?'")

Devin Rey Barney endearingly channels Tommy Tune as washed-up vaudevillian Buddy Becker. Also intriguing are John Peterson as Olympic wrestler Johnny Adel and Brianna Lyman as one-time socialite Dora Foster.

Another highlight is the bright 21-piece orchestra, under the masterful baton of Alex Marshall.

Fred Ebb has opined that STEEL PIER "was the wrong show at the wrong time." Musical aficionados will cherish this staging, and general-audience theatergoers will be equally entertained by this right show at the right time.

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BWW Review: STEEL PIER at University Of Utah Department Of Theatre

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