City Center Encores! has continued its string of "special events" — offerings that do not fit in their regular subscription season of revivals of worthy old musicals — with a stage version of the 1953 movie musical "The Band Wagon." Two of these special events thus far have transferred to Broadway: Gypsy and Cotton Club Parade (under the title After Midnight). With top-flight creators and actors, The Band Wagon seems intended for a similar afterlife.
Back in the '40s and '50s, MGM turned out a series of high-quality musicals that remain enjoyable today, more than a half-century later. Several important examples took existing song catalogues and threaded them into a plot suitable for members of MGM's star roster (such as Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Judy Garland). "The Band Wagon" used the catalogue of composer Arthur Schwartz and lyricist Howard Dietz. (If Schwartz and Dietz never achieved the Broadway career they well could have, there was a good reason: Dietz maintained a day job throughout his career — as the head publicity man for MGM, with the mascot "Leo the Lion" among his contributions.)
"The Band Wagon" film demonstrates how very talented Schwartz and Dietz were; the songs include "By Myself," "A Shine on Your Shoes," "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan," "New Sun in the Sky" and the stunning "Dancing in the Dark." To these already 20-year-old songs, Schwartz and Dietz added a brand new one: the rousing "That's Entertainment," which served as the hallmark for the "Band Wagon" film and spawned its own franchise of musical anthology movies for MGM.
The new stage version of The Band Wagon retains the songs — adding plenty more — and basic plot, although Douglas Carter Beane has added several layers of complication to the Betty Comden-Adolph Green screenplay. Beane did a similar job on the current Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, but his Band Wagon book goes back to 2008 when the musical premiered at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, under the title Dancing in the Dark. Kathleen Marshall (Nice Work if You Can Get It) provides the direction and choreography for this new version, including a nifty tap finale.
Heading the cast in the former Astaire-role is Brian Stokes Mitchell as Tony Hunter. (The character, a washed-up stage-and-screen icon, is no longer a dancer; that was changed in 2008, when the role was played by Scott Bakula.) Stokes Mitchell is always a joy to watch on stage, and he brings his booming voice and comedic talents to the role. Laura Osnes, of Cinderella, plays ballet star Gaby Gerard; again, this was originally conceived as a dance role, for Cyd Charisse, but the character has been given five songs to take advantage of Osnes' talents.
Standing out among the group are Tony Sheldon (as the over-the-top showman, Jeffrey Cordoba) and Tracey Ullman (as the Betty Comden-like lyricist, Lily Martin). Sheldon, the Australian actor who made such a strong impression in Priscilla Queen of the Desert, is a joy as the esoteric director/producer/actor who is blissfully out of his league in a musical. Ullman, the British sketch comedienne who brought a new dimension to television with "The Tracey Ullman Show" and subsequent series, turns out to be a musical comedy natural. Also offering support are Michael McKean, as the Adolph Green-like composer; Michael Berresse, as the pretentiously modernistic choreographer; and Don Stephenson as producer Cordoba's general factotum.
The score, under the musical direction of Todd Ellison, sounds very good indeed. Larry Hochman has provided sparkling orchestrations, even if the twelve-piece band — placed center stage, as is the norm at Encores! — looks sparsely populated. Encores-goers with a special interest in show tunes will find the film-score supplemented by six Schwartz and Dietz songs, including "Sweet Music" — from the 1930 Astaire stage revue The Band Wagon, which provided three of the main songs (including "Dancing in the Dark") plus the title; "A Rainy Day" from Flying Colors, which provided "Louisiana Hayride" and "A Shine on Your Shoes"; "Got a Bran' New Suit," from At Home Abroad; and "Something You Never Had Before" from The Gay Life. Most surprising are "When You're Far Away from New York Town" and "I Still Look at You That Way" from the songwriters' final musical, the dire 1963 Mary Martin vehicle, Jennie — the inclusion of which would probably startle even Schwartz and Dietz themselves.