Sunday 18 November 2012

Steel Pier at the Union, or, The Musical as Parable

Once again the Union Theatre has done musical theatre fans a great service by staging the European premiere of Kander and Ebb's 1997 musical, Steel Pier. While the score of the show is not the duo's finest, this actually isn't a problem. Because really, it struck me as the show drew on, this is almost more a play with music than a classic musical. And in that context, the music does exactly what it needs to do, which is drive forward the relationships between the characters. And the characters are completely compelling.

The story concerns a dance marathon at the aforementioned Steel Pier. As the show begins, Rita Racine (Sarah Galbraith) is waiting for her partner to show up. When he fails to appear she finds herself saddled with daredevil pilot, Bill Kelly (Jay Rincon). To tell you any more would spoil the plot, and this is emphatically a show that benefits from one not knowing in advance how it's going to go (although apparently I discovered afterwards if you've seen the film They Shoot Horses Don't They this may give you some clues). Suffice it to say that it's more than a little Capraesque, that the ending brought tears to my eyes, and the moral seemed to be speaking to me.

Director Paul Taylor Mills has assembled an excellent cast. It's always a big test of a musical like this whether the romantic leads can make you believe, and Galbraith and Rincon pass this test with flying colours. Some will possibly find the scripting of their scenes a bit too melodramatic but they're played with enough sincerity that it works. There's a particularly lovely moment when Rincon says something like “You dance like this and in a moment your whole life can change” which is the kind of line that gets me every time. Aimee Atkinson's Shelby has the show's biggest number - “Everybody's Girl” - and duly brings the house down (this is probably the only time you will ever find me pleased to have been sat in the front row), but she is also moving in the scene where we see behind the mask. Also worthy of particular mention is Lisa-Anne Wood's Precious Maguire who gets impressively more ghastly as scene follows scene. The supporting ensemble execute Richard Jones's impressive choreography with remarkable flair considering the space restrictions. But Jones also has a nicely inventive eye for the smaller moments - like the use of a simple white umbrella in "First You Dream".

On this occasion the normal layout of the Union has been reconfigured, and the audience flanks the main dance arena. On the whole this works fine, and my only slight reservation was the pillar which tended to somewhat block my sight of the one area beyond the audience which got regularly used – but as I've mentioned there were plenty of other compensations to being seated where I was!

It was also nice to have a slightly larger band than usual for a Union show. The score often echoes other Kander and Ebb – bits of Cabaret and Flora are I think discernible – and this in itself I found an interesting experience. All of it is played with the requisite spirit and panache by the five piece ensemble led by Musical Director Angharad Sanders – it always says something when an audience stays in their seats for the playout music.

As a show I'm perfectly prepared to admit that this isn't Kander and Ebb's greatest score as a score on its own terms, though Everybody's Girl is a piece of genius. But David Thompson's book is beautifully done and somehow, as I said at the beginning, the music just seems to fit with it – although I did wish we could have had a little more inkling of Shelby's fate. I would urge you all to pick up a ticket, but it seems, as with 55 Days that others have noticed that this is a rare opportunity and the remainder of the run is sold out. If you're a musicals fan, it is well worth seeing if you can find a way in – this is definitely a show deserving of being staged.

Finally, this show earns an award. Now normally our awards are named for the shows to which they were first given, but in this case I couldn't have done this because the show for which this award deserves to be named dates to the time before the blog. Had I been reviewing then The Translucent Frogs of Quuup would have received the inaugural award for Superb Use of the Double Entendre. Steel Pier's joke about grand pianos is right up there with being bored, but only in the engineering sense of the term.

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