Musical theatre is dependant for its success on the skillful coordination of a huge number of elements, much like a banquet to which the audience is invited. And each invitee would have expectations about that event according to the menu. If you are shown a program in the theatre that states that you are going to see ‘The new Astaire and Rogers musical… ‘I Won’t Dance’, you should expect a meal comprising the following:
- Dancing that honours the very large filmed record of two of cinema’s greatest dancers.
- Exciting new interpretations of the classic repertoire of those film’s scores. In the case of ‘I Won’t Dance’, these include Irving Berlin’s ‘Top hat, white tie and tails’, ‘Cheek to cheek’, and ‘Let’s face the music and dance’; Jerome Kern’s ‘Pick yourself up’ and ‘A fine romance’ and George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘They can’t take that away from me’ and ‘Let’s call the whole thing off’.
- A book that manages to tie the singing and dancing together into a satisfying narrative and that makes a coherent piece of music theatre.
Given the ingredients listed in this show’s program, it all sounds like a certainty for a great night’s entertainment. We have a fine venue in Her Majesty’s, Ballarat (though it’s time to take out at least 2 rows in the stalls and make accommodation for modern sized people, South Street!) We have a young, good looking cast, with plenty of past credits. We have a long list of sponsors on board, including Federation University Arts Academy, Bloc Music Theatre and even local dance schools. A four piece band and a full sized production team. So why did it fail to satisfy? How does one produce a flop from such fine ingredients?
The blame must ultimately be laid on writer, producer and director Josh Sanders. The book is a confused mashing of styles that somehow got through to the full production phase. Ill defined characters enter, say their piece, then exit without having contributed to the scene. Relationships between the characters are stated but never really established or developed through the course of the show. The sense of place is never defined. The show supposedly opens in London, then moves to Broadway, but no one would know that if a character hadn’t said so. The second act has another move to Italy, but why did Italy sound like a suburb in Buenos Aires?
Just as disturbing were the failed attempts to push stereotypes forward as characters. I might have thought in 2015 that the days of laughing at foreigners for their ‘funny accents’ or poor grammar were over. At one point this xenophobia took a nasty turn with an exchange between the Gerald character (Ryan Hawke) and a bellhop. When the humour wasn’t directed at ‘them’, it was turned on the Fanny character for one sexist innuendo after another.
This poor libretto was not the show’s only failure though. Given the amazing material provided by Berlin et al to the musical director Sharon Wills, how did her four piece band manage to make the music sound so lifeless? Tempos were always too slow, and there was no sense of excitement, no jazz age ‘snap’ to the score. This is particularly unforgivable given the models readily available from the hundreds of versions that have been done of these songs over the last seventy years.
I might have forgiven most of the above if the show’s two leads were exciting, but here too there was disappointment. James Coley and Catherine Rosman might have been expected to be dancers, but here the title told no lies. But instead of ‘I Won’t Dance’ it should read, ‘I Can’t Dance’. Though their singing was in tune, there was such a lack of commitment that this might have been a first run through rather than a world premiere. Their chemistry as a leading couple in a musical was so lacking that it made the contrived relationship between Lawrence (Aaron Holland) and Irene (Ashleigh Wallace) the main focus of the show. Especially when their duet ‘Let’s call the whole thing off’ briefly pumped some blood into this corpse.
Another moment of life was when Bernice (Holly James) sang ‘Let’s K-nock K-nees’, which might have acted as a model to the cast about the energy required to make music theatre work.
As for the show’s production values, one might have thought that the sets would reflect the ingenuity on show in any of the classic movies of Astaire and Rogers. They are all there to be seen in hundreds of Youtube clips. Likewise, lighting design took no cues from the films of the era, which might have added an interesting visual element. The wireless miking cues were missed three times at the beginning of songs, making the first lines of three songs inaudible. The show’s costumes were uneven in quality, but overall adequate. However, as the Eduardo character (Patrick Durnan-Silva) is meant to be a leading fashion designer, adequate meant disappointing. When one looks at those iconic movies of the 30s, one is struck by the hats above all. Where were the hats?
In conclusion, here’s my advice. Under promise and over deliver. Scrap the libretto, make this a review show with some judicious recasting and sell it as a cute cabaret show for the under 100 seaters.