Playbill Critics Circle: Your Views of Steel Pier, Part 1

News   Playbill Critics Circle: Your Views of Steel Pier, Part 1 The hit revival of Chicago has renewed interest in the music of John Kander and Fred Ebb (Tony-winners for Cabaret and Kiss of the Spider Woman). Just in time, they have a completely new musical ready, Steel Pier, which is currently in previews for an April 24 opening on Broadway.

The hit revival of Chicago has renewed interest in the music of John Kander and Fred Ebb (Tony-winners for Cabaret and Kiss of the Spider Woman). Just in time, they have a completely new musical ready, Steel Pier, which is currently in previews for an April 24 opening on Broadway.

If you have seen the show in previews, please let everyone know what the show looks, sounds and feels like. Be as specific and descriptive as possible. How well does the show express its themes? How well does it capture its milieu -- Atlantic City, N.J. Dance marathons in the 1930s? How are the performances, the dancing, the design elements? How are the songs, and how do they compare to other Kander & Ebb songs? Keep in mind that the show is currently in previews and you are the first people anywhere to see and write about this new show.

Write your comments -- long or short -- and e-mail them to Managing Editor Robert Viagas at robert_viagas@playbill.com. Comments will be posted as they come in.

Please make sure to include your town and state, and please note whether you'd like us to include your full e-mail address so you can receive responses. This is optional, of course.

Here are the results so far. Playbill thanks those who took the time to respond: From Don Simon (cgpamplemoose@webtv.net), Allentown, PA
As loyal as I want to remain to Jekyll & Hyde, I must confess that STEEL PIER will give it a run for it's money at Tony time. This show is what Broadway is all about - singing, dancing, good acting and a great story! The show is a sort of "Grand Hotel" of a dance marathon. We get to meet four couples who are to compete in the famous Steel Pier dance marathon in Atlantic City - the main couple being daredevil Bill Kelly and marathon queen Rita Racine. Rita, however, is secretly married to Mick Hamilton, the MC and coordinator of the marathon. We watch as slowly couples are eliminated from competition until we come to an ending with a surprise twist.
The technical aspects of the show are wonderful - from squealing seagulls to crashing ocean waves to bi-planes flying overhead. The main set of the "ballroom" is grandly lit with three color changes throughout the show. Act II opens with a bi-plane on stage with a great special effect making it appear to fly.
Acting is on target. Karen Ziemba's Rita shows every range of emotion.(J&H's Linda Eder DOES have some competition here), Gregory Harrison plays true slime as the abusive, controlling husband. Debra Monk is a definite Tony Featured Actress as she sings her showstopping number - "Everybody's Girl". Broadway newcomer Daniel McDonald as pilot Bill is a strong character as well.
The songs are not that memorable - I can't even hum any now (just seeing the show 5 hours ago). Karen's "Running in Place" is a definite showcase for all her talents. But also keep your ears tuned for the beautiful instrumental during the closing scene.
Overall, it was truly a great day at the theater. This is the one show I was afraid would hurt Jekyll & Hyde's Tony chances and (unfortunately) - I stand with my previous conviction. Although I will still be rooting for Jekyll & Hyde to win, I feel that the Tony voters MIGHT see this as a show with all the "Broadway" elements. (4/14/97)

 

From Kenneth C. Sherman:
I saw the show over a week ago. There is very little that I can remember about it -- I guess that says it all. Sure everyone is writing in about "Everybody's Girl" and "Running In Place." Both are now a blur. The book was a cross between They Shoot Horses and Always/Ghost; the dancing repetitive; the sets unimaginative (ok, I did like the airplane), and Karen Ziemba is a baffle (superb craft but lacking star firepower). (4/13/97)

 

From 082YC:
I'm afraid I was disappointed in Steel Pier during last night's (Friday April 11) preview performance. I am a longtime fan of Kander & Ebb (esp. Woman of the Year and Kiss of the Spider Woman) and so I was expecting to be swept away by a new K&E show, at least by the score. While the show is certainly pleasant and professionally executed, the story is not particularly compelling, the choreography is lackluster, and there were only a couple songs worthy of K&E. If the production team is looking for ways to improve the show prior to its opening, I suggest that they make the final scene much more dramatic and add a truly romantic, intimate dance number. For example, one of the best songs in the show is "Second Chance" -- it should be reprised. There is the core of a successful show here, but it needs much revision to get there. (4/12/97)

 

From Philip Craig (GothamPC@aol.com), New York, NY.
In the first ten minutes of Steel Pier, the leading man says he needs three weeks to accomplish his task. After the final curtain dropped almost three hours later, I felt like I had sat there for the entire three, very long, weeks.
When I first heard Kander & Ebb were going to create a musical about marathon dancing, I thought it was a brilliant idea. Dance competition during the backdrop of the Great Depression will be a first rate musical. But the idea must have looked better on paper.
The main problem with Steel Pier is that there is not enough character development to make it interesting. We get glimpses of each of the characteris lives, but we find out too early in the story who is going to win the contest and we never get to "root" for our favorites as we did in that other "competition dance show" A Chorus Line. Therefore when dancers begin to lose, we are too distant from them to empathize.b Even if they didnit have interesting characters, an interesting plot might have saved this show. But after watching the entire cast run around in circles at the close of the first act, you know that intermission should be used as an escape not a break.
Karen Ziemba gives 100%, but she is creating a character that has no depth. This character has told us what she wants out of life, but we never see the struggle to obtain it. When she executes the solo dance in the second act, we know that this should be a turning point for her, but the battle hasnit been interesting enough to watch her catharsis.
Daniel McDonald and Gregory Harrison are also saddled with characters that are cardboard cutouts. There is never enough conflict in their stories to make us sit up and take notice.b Debra Monk does the best job of making bad writing into an interesting character. Her first act song "Everybodyis Girl" is the first moment of true energy in the show, but even that doesnit sizzle as everyone knows it could. In addition, Ms. Monk is denied an ending to this song. Unfortunately the writers have designed an encore which never allows Ms. Monk to finish the song. (If anyone out there can explain why a writer would write an encore only to stop it cold, I'd like to hear the reason.)
Ms. Monk brings us a moment in the second act when you feel true pathos for her attempt to find love, but the accompanying song "Somebody Older" doesnit live up to the moment. I only wish that Broadway would quit wasting Ms. Monkis talent and give her the good material she deserves. (She is living what Stockard Channing had to endure several years ago: being a wonderful talent but not being given first rate material to fully display her genius).
Messrs. Kander & Ebb have not found the musical that could have developed from this material. Audiences donit want to pay $65 to hear such banal lyrics like "Power is powerful" as one of the songs says. (That advice goes to Jekyll & Hydeis writers as well, "This is the moment, this momentous momentO" is not sufficient). And the hope of leaving the theater with the music in your head and counting the days until the CD is released has been denied Steel Pier customers.
So my advice to all theatergoers is to go to TKTS and get a half price ticket for Steel Pier only if you are a die hard theatergoer. But hurry, this show wonit make it through the summer. (4/12/97)

 

From Victor M. Maog:
STEEL PIER is a nostaligia piece. Kander and Ebb continue to utilize the devise of the traditional book musical in the footsteps of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The greatest asset to the production is Deborah Monk. She creates from the composer/lyricists musical nothing. It is in her delivery that the song "Everybody's Good" appears to be well written.
Generally, the dynamic duo that brought us CABARET and CHICAGO are not known for even scores, but rather, individual pieces that become hits of musical theatre and the mainstream. The Monk song, is the closest they come. They know that audiences have become increasingly visual, but I think they forget that musical theatre has evolved, and that songs must come from a place where words simply are inadequate. SP lacks clarity.
The work is a case of multiple story lines, none of them developed enough to propel emotion. Walter Bobbie's genius with CHICAGO is not his staging, but merely his acknowledgement of the nature of K and E's style, and presented those elements cleary, and gloriously. That is where the director Scott Ellis faltered. As I sat through a seemingly long Saturday afternoon Matinee, I asked myself several questions: a) What story are they attempting to tell? b) And, when does it begin? c) what meal could I have eaten with money I spent on this show?
---All joking aside, for this show to have any mileage, it must be rethought. Today's audiences need something to grab on to...emotionally. I question if this is a story that needs to be retold. This is the death of musical theatre. Go see VIOLET...that, might be its resurrection. (4/11/97)

 

From J.R.King, New York City:
"Steel Pier" certainly sounded like a good idea: Atlantic City, dance marathons, Kander and Ebb! How could it go wrong?
Well, "Nick and Nora" sounded like a good idea, too.
The picture-postcard logo is great, and is used nicely as a backdrop during the overture. It was the highlight of the show.
The evening seemed to be getting off to a slow start, but that's forgivable, and fixable: opening night is still a couple of weeks away. Unfortunately, it wasn't just the start that was slow. Throughout, there was not a single moment of real humor or emotion, a single identifiable "song" worth repeating. There were nice musical phrases here and there (and Karen Ziemba and Daniel McDonald, the young couple at the center of the action, provide lovely voices for them), but nothing hung together very well, and the lyrics were uniformly sophomoric. The dancing was accomplished, but monotonous. And endless.
When it was clear we were in for a long evening, the one hope was that Debra Monk would pull something out of her abundant hat. She gave it all a brassy go, but had few good lines to work with. And her big musical number toward the end of Act I, "Everybody's Girl," while delivered with verve, was reminiscent of "Louis Seize" in "Victor, Victoria," one clever joke with little point and little to remember.
(And painfully vulgar, to boot.) The sets were spare, the costumes unremarkable. The book -- well, there wasn't much of a book, and what there was didn't make a lot of sense and wasn't very interesting.
This was without question the most disappointing evening I've ever spent in a theater -- any theater. All that talent, too. (One advantage of having so many people on the stage, and the show- biz setting, is that at key moments, the cast can applaud each other, which helps cover for the fact that the audience isn't.)
These comments are offered with one caveat: they apply only to the first act. For the first time in more than two decades of theatergoing, I left at intermission. (After all, I thought, I only paid half-price; then I looked at our advance purchase tickets and realized with chagrin that I'd paid two thirds!)
I even sat through all of "Nick and Nora." (4/9/97)

 

From Matthew Curtis (matthe08@themall.net):
I got to see Steel Pier last night and was thrilled on what a wonderful evening at the theatre is! Debra Monk brought down the house with her number "Everybody's Girl". Karen Ziemba posses a beautiful voice so clear and persistent that you don't need to read her lips to understand her. It was really neat, I was in between two men that remember the real Steel Pier in its heyday!! It's a great show and I hope some Tonys come flying their way!!! (4/6/97)

 

From Bartlebyw:
Kander and Ebb set out to write a dance show with a Broadway score that would have the audience leave the theater humming. Well, in "Steel Pier" the dancing grows monotonous after the first three numbers, and the score is so bland as to be entirely unmemorable. Even the ad nauseam reprising of the title song failed to register a single note in my memory.
The book is equally disappointing, saving most of the interesting sections, plot twists, and emotions for the second act; the first act is little more than a series of long marathon dances and brief expository scenes interspersed with heavy purple lighting and spiritual metaphors.
Scott Elliot's direction is sufficient, although the stylized opening and ending of the first act have to be changed (and the fantasy/dream sequence at the beginning of the second act was silly and clumsy enough to send me and my friend into gales of stifled laughter). Susan Stroman's choreography seems transplanted directly from "Crazy for You", and gets highly monotonous and silly by the 3rd (of perhaps 9-10) marathon dance sequence. The set and lighting are superb; the wooden motif works very well, and is complemented greatly by the use of atmospheric colors and washes of the lighting. Karen Ziemba is also superb, and when she is finally given a good song in the second act, she stops the show. And when Debra Monk sings her song (the best in the show, and one of about three that are any good) she brings down the house.
Still, despite these few highlights, "Steel Pier" is still not a good musical, and its big surprise at the end really isn't much of a surprise at all. (4/6/97)

 

From Girodet:
Though I've been rooting for this production since I first heard about it and eagerly awaited its opening, I was really depressed with the results when I saw a preview performance of "Steel Pier" on Friday, April 4. I had looked forward to such a remarkable team executing what I thought to be a marvelous idea and maybe my own excitement got the best of me. Granted it is only in previews, but I just feel like there is far too much work to be done in time for its opening to survive.
I'll begin with the most fixable of problems, the technical. The sets were clunky, poorly designed and no joy for the eye, and the lighting accented the disaster with lame angles and blotchy colors. Most notable, was the transition of time when the stage goes black except for swirling purple lights on the swirling dancers and a meter of swirling numerals clicking to the next time frame. The first time it was done was fun, but the many times thereafter, the approach got annoying. I won't even get into the airplane bit, though tempted am I to compare it to another aircraft that takes flight every night a few blocks up. With the freedom of a healthy budget and the master, scenic designer Tony Walton, I would imagine they could do better than this. Hopefully, by the time it opens, those kinks can be worked out.
The score is charming and there are a some adorable pieces that will survive if the show does not. Among them are "Second Chance", "Everybody's Girl" and "Wet". However, none in their stage treatments give them a chance to be showstoppers with "Everybody's Girl" desperately achieving a runner-up status. Kander and Ebb have a terrific score here, but they are riding on the tails of themselves with the rebirth of "Chicago" and their competition is fierce. Everyone is bound to notice the similarities in both scores. Still, I definitely look forward to the release of the CD.
Overall, I liked the premise of the book - my heart actually popped when the climax was revealed. However, to get from here to there was a slow, dreary ride. Gregory Harrison would've been better suited in the role of Bill Kelly. He was left to reprise the role of James Naughton and the similarities were boring and almost insulting. It worked in "Chicago", it doesn't work here. It's one of those times that you know the actor has the potential and you're routing for him, but you discover its being wasted on a so-so role and finally you give up. Karen Ziemba did her best and at times was fantastic, but again the in-between waiting period from one great moment to the next was difficult to endure. "Running in Place" was really her only moment to shine and give or take a sparkle or two, she managed to do so. Debra Monk as the brassy Shelby (and I know I am going to get persecuted for this) didn't really work for me as I felt she only looked good because the others did not.
A major problem I had was with Ms. Stroman's choreography. There was nothing clever about it. We have all come to admire this woman's work with her past successes and yearn for another Dance Stromanoff. But in all reality, can one expect her to surpass her work in "Crazy For You"? In hind sight, she really hit her peak then. After witnessing her shows since, I have seen a steady decline and it lands with a ker-plop on "Steel Pier". But then I ask myself, was this really the right material for her to showcase her brilliance. One might say no after seeing the show. With "Crazy For You" she got the reigns and freedom to go crazy - with this production she was limited to an occasional peep and it really falls flat.
All in all, my fingers are crossed and I remain optimistic. There is a great show struggling to get through here and hopefully by the time it opens, it will pop out and grab its audience. However, if it doesn't survive, they can always revive it 20 years or so down the road at City Center's Encores! and repeat the success of that other Kander & Ebb show. (4/5/97)

 

From Anish Khanna (docluv6104) Montville, NJ:
So, I had the GREAT pleasure of seeing Steel Pier yesterday. Without going into great detail, let me just say that the show was perfection. Although it got off to a slow start, the music, choreography ("susan stroman choreography! AWESOME!"), plot, and performances provided an incredibly transporting experience that was simply amazing. Karen Ziemba will be the new diva on the block after this incredible author-backed role... and isn't it time that Debra Monk received the musical recognition she so rightfully deserves and wins the tony? (i personally loved her in Company) But Kander and Ebb rake up another hit, and also insure that the audience will come back for a second viewing with a surprise twist in the end that ties together the brilliant symbolism and metaphors that are present throughout the show (go Scott Ellis!). I simply cannot wait to go back for a second viewing. . . Definitely the hit of the season in my humble opinion! (4/5/97)

 

From Duckie391:
I think Steel Pier is an excellent show and will have a lot of success. When you walk in, you are surrounded by the sounds of ocean waves and seagulls. With it's lights, wonderful scenery, and costumes, you feel as if you've taken a leap back in time -- to the dance marathon at the Steel Pier in 1933. The actors become their character so well that they pull you into their world of despair, hopefulness, and passion. The songs aren't the best part of the whole show, but they're good. A few places should be tightened up so they can be better understood, but as for the most part, Gregory Harrison, Karen Ziemba, Daniel McDonald, and the rest of the cast have done a wonderful job. (4/4/97)

 

From JekHyde (JekHyde@aol.com):
I saw Steel Pier during the Wednesday Matinee on Apr. 2. All I have to say is that it had the potential to be a great show. Great acting, good music, excellent lighting and sets...but the plot just wasn't there. The plot was so terribly boring that none of the 8 people in my group enjoyed it . . .3 of them dozed off. If I was to grade this on a scale from 1-10 (10 being the best) I would give it a 2...just because the plot was drug out and very dull. (4/4/97)

 

From Dan Amato (dan_amato@mcgraw hill.com):
We went to see STEEL PIER this past Saturday night. I'll try to be fair since it was only its third performance. Debra Monk was fabulous. Every time she spoke, sang or even waltzed across the stage, I was filled with laughter. Karen Ziemba and her dance partner worked well together. But the best thing about the show was the book. It is such a great story, however they lost me at the end of the first act (boys, that scene needs some work). The sets were fun, dancing nice but I didn't leave humming any of the songs. After having recently seen CHICAGO, STEEL PIER failed to compare. However, with just a few adjustments, in song choice and story direction, this will be wonderful show. (4/3/97)

 

From Sallymax:
I went to last Saturday's (3/29) matinee and was amazed at how weak the show was. The story is both hard to follow and uninteresting. Although set at a dance marathon, they never fully engage the metaphor. We, the audience, have no idea why these people have subjected themselves to this experience; instead the creative team has written a dreary love fantasy that seems more about nostalgia for 20th Century Fox than anything else. The Kander and Ebb score is not of Chicago or Cabaret Caliber. It reminded me of 70 Girls 70. The cast is amiable, but, aside from Deborah Monk, hardly registers. Karen Ziemba works hard and is charming, but one can't help but think that the show needs a Star. G. Harrison is shockingly bland. Susan Stroman's choreography catches fire on occasion, but, because of the nature of the book, seems superfluous to the plot. As you can tell I was really disappointed. Unlike Berlin 1929, Chicago late 1920's, The Steel Pier in Atlantic City in 1933 is not a powerful enough metaphor for the general public. (4/2/97)

 

From Kevin Hammonds (Kevin_Hammonds@discovery.com) New York:
I saw Steel Pier on it's first night of previews. Although the show needs a great deal of work, I think the creators have a good start and plenty of time to fix it. The music is great. Some very recognizable Kander & Ebb styles can be heard, but I personally enjoyed hearing the familiar sounds again in another format. However, I think they must be so convinced of their Chicago success that they feel they must go back to that material too much. One song (sung by Gregory Harrison) could have easily been slipped into Chicago as Billy Flynn's "All I Care About" number. It was complete with handsome man in a tuxedo, surrounded by beautiful show girls. Although it was a fine song, I could hear a number of people around me saying "Isn't that in Chicago?"
Another holdover from Chicago is the use of cellophane. In the second act, there is a "Cellophane Wedding." Every bridesmaid and the bride as well, is wearing dresses made out of cellophane. Why? Got me. That entire number was a dud from the word go. It is sung by a cute character named Precious in the same style as Mary Sunshine's "A Little Bit of Good" number in Chicago. However, this one wasn't funny, it wasn't pretty and it was just annoying. That would be my main point of contention with Kander & Ebb. Cut it! Cut it! Cut it! I will be surprised if it is kept in the show. But with exception to the wedding number, most of the songs were great. Especially, Debra Monk's SHOW STOPPER "Everybody's Girl." That song will be sung in every piano bar until the end of time!
The main problem with Steel Pier is the book. David Thompson has written a lot of revues and has revised a number of old scripts, but no where in his bio is it ever mentioned that he has created an original book. It shows. The idea of the story itself is great. But, the ensemble characters (Dance Marathon contestants) were uninteresting and had no relationships with one another. The only one that walked away with a winner was Debra Monk (Of course). A lot of the dialogue seemed fake and forced. In fact, I'm still undecided whether Gregory Harrison was really bad or was he a victim of really bad dialogue. He has a lovely voice, but I think he has two strikes against him from the get go. One, the dialogue, and two, his totally unlikable character.
In contrast, Karen Ziemba is a star!!! She sounds beautiful, looks beautiful, and dances wonderfully! She totally runs the gamut of emotions in this show and she's a trooper. I would love to see her take home a Tony for this one.
So, there you are. If they fix the book, punch up the characters and try not to rely so much on their past successes, Steel Pier promises to be one of the hits of the season. Go see it, but give them a few more weeks to work out the kinks. (4/1/97)

 

From SSS1969:
We just saw Steel Pier.

It was the longest night of our lives. The highlight of the show was Debra Monk's performance of "Everybody's Girl"--she got a well-deserved enthusiastic applause. Karen Ziemba gave a wonderful performance but she lacked a certain je ne sais quoi which could have made "Running in Place" a show-stopper. It is surprising that the music was by Kander and Ebb--of Cabaret, Woman of the Year, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Chicago fame. It was forgettable at best, and seemed strangely to be striving for a family audience. The only song that was in keeping with their style was the aforementioned "Everybody's Girl", which was reminiscent of Chicago's "Class" in its bawdy humor.
Considering the material Gregory Harrison had to work with, he did the best he could with his role of Mick Hamilton. Whereas Daniel McDonald's best feature was his chest and non-offensive singing voice. We had looked forward to what we had heard about the second act- a tap dancing performance on the wings of a plane. We were most underwhelmed. First of all, it looked nothing like a plane, and secondly, the tap dancing was elementary at best. So much more could have been done with that. There were some saving moments in interesting dream sequences, flashbacks and segues, but alas it was not enough to vindicate the production. As far as Susan Stroman's choreography, it lacked passion and had all the complexity of a middle school talent show. Her only redeeming scene was the slow motion rewind of the "sprinting" scene. Costumes (William Ivey Long) were adequate. Lighting design (Peter Kaczorowski ) was impressive at times, and lent the show some artistic merit. Ultimately, this show is a rip-off even at half the price. (3/30/97)

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