Fred Astaire hasn't danced on a New York stage in years, but his spirit will when the new musical, Dancing in the Dark, begins previews at Off Broadway's Lamb's Theatre March 25.
The new work, directed by Randall Kramer and written and choreographed by Jeffry Denman, tells of a creatively blocked Broadway choreographer (played by Michael Berresse) who is motivated by a magical encounter with the late Astaire (played by Denman). The setting is a rehearsal studio once rented by Astaire.
Dancing in the Dark is expected to open April 13.
The conceptual musical has a company of nine and a score that includes the work of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Burton Lane and original music and lyrics by Donald R. Jenczka and Daniel S. Acquisto. According to production notes, "The two dancers work together and assist each other in overcoming obstacles, not only from the demands that their careers require, but also the more personal and emotional issues of loss and courage."
Among issues addressed: The idea of losing mates -- wives or dancing partners.
Astaire managed to recreate himself twice, after the breakup of partnerships with sister Adele (his stage partner) and Ginger Rogers (his film partner). The legendary Astaire, who died in 1987, performed in vaudeville, on Broadway, in musical films and TV. In his later years, he was a dramatic actor on film ("Ghost Story") and TV ("A Family Upside Down").
Producer Jennifer Dumas was invited to see a production of the show at Summerfare Musical Theatre in Buffalo in fall 1997, and was excited that "it was new and refreshing."
She told Playbill On-Line she "loved that the choreography told the story" of both creative men. The Astaire-like choreography doesn't steal from his specific film repertoire, she said, but recalls his style.
And the modern-day choreographer, named Jerry, doesn't bend his style to be Astaire's, she said. The show suggests, ultimately, that every dancer draws from every dancer who came before.
In fall 1998, Buffalo Studio Arena presented a recast version of the show a year after Summerfare, and seven of the nine performers from the Arena staging are in the Off-Broadway mounting.
Among songs used in the show are Porter's "Night and Day," Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz' "Dancing in the Dark" and Gerhswin's "I'd Rather Charleston," plus new pastiche pieces and new contemporary-sounding numbers. Contemporary tap is represented in the show as well, Dumas said.
The ensemble includes Nancy Lemenager, Susan Misner, Dennis Stowe, Anne Nicole Biancofiore, Robertson Carricart and Norm Sham, Jr.
Berresse starred as Billy Flynn in the national tour of the Chicago revival. Choreographer-performer Denman appeared in the revival of How to Succeed... with Matthew Broderick and had a featured role in Wayne Cilento's Dream.
Director Kramer is the founder and artistic director of Summerfare Musical Theatre Company in Buffalo, NY.
Designers are Kanen Ten Eyck (set), David Murin (costumes) and Amy Appleyard (lighting).
The play's title is drawn from the song by Dietz and Schwartz, first heard in the Astaire Broadway revue, The Band Wagon (1931). Astaire and Cyd Charisse danced to the number in the (freely adapted) MGM film version of The Band Wagon in 1953.
Astaire, who was a Broadway star with his sister, Adele, between 1917 31 (the first time 42nd Street was grand and legit), became a movie musical star after she retired from their partnership, following The Band Wagon.. She died in 1981.
The Lamb's is at 140 W. 44th St. in Manhattan. Tickets range $20-$55. For information, call (212) 239-6200.
-- By Kenneth Jones