With a new Jeffrey Hatcher libretto based on the RKO picture "Swing Time," Never Gonna Dance (which was the movie's original title before executives changed it) is sure to be thought of as the kind of Broadway musical they don't make anymore: Hoofer with a provincial fiancee falls in love with a dance instructor in Manhattan and they partner-dance over the hurdles.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers played the lovers Lucky and Penny on film in 1936, and for the Broadway expansion of the story there are two relative newcomers: Former chorus kids Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager sing and dance through some of Jerome Kern's most famous songs, representing a gaggle of lyricists — from Dorothy Fields to Johnny Mercer to Oscar Hammerstein II.
To expand the score for the stage, the creators drew on Kern songs from a variety of projects and a range of lyricists, including Fields (who wrote the "Swing Time" songs with him), Ira Gershwin, Jimmy McHugh, Otto Harbach, P.G. Wodehouse and others. This might be the first time since 1933 that lyricist Bernard Dougall has been heard in a Broadway theatre. He was Otto Harbach's stepson and wrote the lyric to "I'll Be Hard to Handle" for the 1933 stage show, Roberta. The number was also heard in the film version, "Roberta," with Astaire and Rogers.
Kern (1885-1945) was that rare theatre composer who wrote musical comedies that had one foot in operetta and one in jazz (Very Good Eddie, Sitting Pretty, Sweet Adeline) and eventually helped launch the modern American musical drama, with Show Boat, in 1927. Never Gonna Dance's source movie includes musical comedy treasures such as "The Way You Look Tonight," "A Fine Romance," "Never Gonna Dance" and "Pick Yourself Up." Among songs added and explored in rehearsals and previews have been "Who" (from Sunny), "She Didn't Say Yes" (from The Cat and the Fiddle), "The Song Is You" (from Music in the Air), "I'd Be Hard to Handle" (the aforementioned Roberta), "Dearly Beloved" and "I'm Old Fashioned" (from the film "You Were Never Lovelier"), "I Won't Dance" (from the film "Roberta"), "You Couldn't Be Cuter" (from the film "The Joy of Living") and "Remind Me" (from the film "One Night in the Tropics"). Some changes in the songlist occurred as rehearsals and previews continued.
For Karen Ziemba, who plays Penny's pal, Mabel, the obscure "Shimmy With Me" (with a lyric by frequent Kern collaborator Wodehouse) was unearthed and jazzed up by musical director and vocal arranger Robert Billig, orchestrator Harold Wheeler and dance music arranger Zane Mark.
The lovers face various obstacles in the show: Lucky's impending marriage, his vow to never dance (a promise made to impress his future father-in-law), Penny's wish for honesty and old-fashioned values, and a couple of Harlem dancers (Deidre Goodwin and Eugene Fleming) with whom they compete in a dance contest.
The busy Jerry Mitchell, the choreographer of Gypsy, The Full Monty and Hairspray, creates the choreography — tap, partner and slinky jazz steps — for this new interpretation of the tale (which is still set during the Depression).
One of the musical's showpieces comes early in the evening, when an 11-minute dance sequence offers Racey's Lucky being seduced by the city's beat as he arrives at the teeming Grand Central Station.
Mitchell is on the edge of becoming a Broadway director-choreographer; he's expected to helm West Side Story on Broadway in the near future.
Racey and Lemenager star, but they are not yet stars in the traditional sense: Their work has been seen in the ensembles of Broadway and touring shows. Racey's recent Broadway gig was in the company of Thoroughly Modern Millie (he was also the associate choreographer) and Lemenager's credits include the tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Music of the Night, Broadway's recent Kiss Me, Kate, Dream, How to Succeed... and Guys and Dolls.
"They didn't hire ballroom dancers, they hired musical theatre dancers, people who love all variety of dancing — and also acting and all the things that go into the roles," Racey told Playbill On-Line.
"We were fortunate enough to do the workshop two years ago, and I think that was a big key in the casting," Lemenager said. "Jerry was pairing people up at the workshop audition, and when we got called back, it was the two of us in a room together. It's something you can't put your finger on: Why do people get married? Why do people connect? Why do people become friends? Why do we make good partners? From Day One we sort of moved alike. We felt the music similarly."
Librettist Hatcher (Scotland Road, Three Viewings) told Playbill On-Line that the basic plot points from the 1936 film still exist in Never Gonna Dance: A vaudeville hoofer named Lucky comes to Manhattan to prove to his future father-in-law that he can make money in a legitimate business, but ends up dancing with a new partner, dance teacher Penny Carroll.
"It did strike me that we'd probably have to have a more caffeinated book than the original film has," Hatcher said. "It's charming, but certain plot things had to be bumped up. I thought the basic premise was a really great idea. I took the key characters and three or four of the key plot points and expanded them."
Karen Ziemba, who plays wisecracking Mabel, Penny's pal from the dance studio, said, "I've wanted to work with Jerry Mitchell. He and I had danced together many years ago when he was still dancing. Everybody wanted to be his partner because he was the strongest, biggest, most handsome partner. Not only could he dance by himself beautifully, when he lifted you in the air, you felt like a feather. Now that he's doing such great work as a choreographer, I jumped at the chance to work with him."
Tony Award-winner Ziemba said she's like an older sister to the Penny character, and accepts the comparison to Eve Arden. "I'd love to be like Eve Arden, she's one of my favorites," Ziemba said.
Her comic romantic interest in the show is Peter Gerety, playing a former financier broken (but not beat) by the Depression. The characters are inspired by the second bananas in film, played by Victor Moore and Helen Broderick. Gerety made an impression as the Butcher in The Public Theater's staging of Suzan-Lori Parks' Brechtian Fucking A.
Ziemba, remembered for Contact, Steel Pier, Crazy for You, Chicago also gets to sings the lesser-known Kern tune, "I Got Love." In previews, Gerety crooned "The Song Is You" to Ziemba's Mabel in a scene set in an art-deco automat, the site of which sent older theatregoers chattering about those obsolete and beloved dining venues.
The company also includes Peter Bartlett (as the dithery, effeminate dance-school owner, fashioned after RKO staple Eric Blore), David Pittu (as a Latin love interest of Penny's), Deborah Leamy (as the fiancé, Margaret), Philip LeStrange (as the father-in-law), Ron Orbach (as Maj. Bowes), with ensemble members Julio Agustin, Timothy J. Alex, Roxane Barlow, Nili Bassman, Julie Connors (getting applause for the William Ivey Long costume she wears, playing Maj. Bowes' assistant), Sally Mae Dunn, Jennifer Frankel, Jason Gillman, Greg Graham, Ashley Hull, Denis Jones, Kenya Unique Massey, Ipsita Paul, T. Oliver Reid, Kirby Ward, Tommar Wilson and Tony Yazbeck.
Producers of Never Gonna Dance are Weissberger Theater Group/Jay Harris, Edgar Bronfman Jr., James Walsh, Ted Hartley/RKO Pictures, and Harvey Weinstein.
Designers are Robin Wagner (set), William Ivey Long (costumes), Paul Gallo (lighting), ACME Sound (sound). The Broadhurst Theatre is at 235 W. 44th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue.
Never Gonna Dance's playing schedule is 8 PM Monday-Saturday and 2 PM Wednesday and Saturday.
Tickets ($71.25-$101.25) are also available through www.Telecharge.com.
For more information, visit www.NeverGonnaDance.com.