Playbill Critics Circle: Your Views of Steel Pier, Part 2

News   Playbill Critics Circle: Your Views of Steel Pier, Part 2
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 opened April 24 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 opened April 24 on Broadway.

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?

Write your comments -- long or short -- and e-mail them to Managing Editor Robert Viagas at 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.

Playbill thanks those who took the time to respond. Owing to the unusual number and length of responses, we have created this second file of views. Here are the latest results: From M. Saunders (saunders.telcores.COM):
I saw 'Steel Pier' on 5/10/97 (evening performance). Yet again, I had pondered over the mixed reviews. I was very pleasantly surprised with this show! Before I begin, I should let the reader know my 'biases', if you will, so that you know where I'm coming from in terms of what makes a theater experience 'tick' for me. I want to come out of the theater with a moment or moments that I can remember and take with me and I generally prefer musicals over plays. I also have a strong interest in the art of theater dance, and tend to lean towards dance oriented musicals.
'Steel Pier' is a traditional style love-triangle musical. No, it may not break 'new' ground in musical theater, but then, I'm not sure what does any longer. From the opening to the ending, I was enthralled by this show. The first act is the 'happier' act, and introduces us to the main characters in the triangle, Rita (played by Karen Ziemba), Mick (played by Gregory Harrison), and Bill (played by Daniel McDonald). The background, of course, is the Steel Pier dance marathon set in Atlantic City. This allows us to be taken back in time to a simpler way of life, and the dance marathon, of course, sets the stage while also allowing for some powerful choreography. Let's talk choreography and dancing first: Simply put, 'Steel Pier', in my opinion, has some of the most magnificent choreography on Broadway, and is loaded with a first rate group of ensemble dancers. I can't recall a production with a deeper set of dancers than 'Steel Pier'. Picking favorites from this group would be unfair, simply because I was not able to take in the complete spectacle due to simple visual overload. (But it was a joyous overload).
However, Joel Blum and Valerie Wright stood out for me; he being just a great character actor and a wonderful dancer, and she being an electrifying, energetic and technically clean, crisp dancer. When Valerie dances, I get the feeling the people a few theaters down the road can feel the vibes. Included in my list of dancers who wowed me would also include Elizabeth Mills and Joann Hunter, in fact, you could say the whole ensemble rocked. For me, the most astonishingly stunning dance number comes in the second act: 'Montage II', and it just left me jawdropped in total amazement. We're talking 12+ couples, if I counted right, gorgeous, complex choreography, wonderful, moody lighting, and it runs what has to be near the seven minute mark. I can't recall ever being so wiped out by a large scale ensemble production number like this: I honestly think it's has more impact than even 'One' from ACL.
Vocally, everyone is solid; I have to admit I was maybe not as impressed with Debra Monk's 'Everybodies Girl' but that just may be because it's been so hyped up here. She does, in my (probably minority) opinion a much nicer song in the second act whose name escapes me at this moment. Kristen Chenoweth has got one serious operatic voice and can act as well. I think she has a bright future ahead for her.
On to the stars: Gregory Harrison plays a great Mick and Daniel McDonald really impressed me as the lovable Bill. And then we have Karen Ziemba: I can't believe the criticism I have read regarding her performance. This serious triple threat actress/dancer/singer is simply magnificent in this show! She plays the complete range of emotion in the show with such accuracy and intensity that when she endures some of that 'emotional pain' later in the second act I felt chills down my spine and felt I was the same person a she. It is, in fact, when she gets to the sad and intense scene in the second act that she really shines. She just had me spellbound with her performance and I was so wiped out by it that I still get the chills thinking about it a few days later. I never saw her as being an actress who is playing a character; I always FELT the character, like there was a transparency there which enabled me to really feel the emotions she was feeling.
Then we can talk about her dancing; folks, when she dances her duet in the first act she is graceful, balletic, and has a great sense of flow in the piece. She has wonderful line and a wonderful way of portraying the feeling of the piece through her dancing. Add a nice voice, and you have the makings of a star.
How much do I like this show? Let's put it this way. It took me a good 4-5 blocks of walking and a half an hour of late dinner before I returned to my normal self. This show wiped me out emotionally, and I will not soon forget it. The key, I think, for the reader, is their ability to immerse themselves in a production. If you want a happy-go-lucky, cheery show, and you like to watch theater from an emotionally distant perspective, you may not find 'Steel Pier' to your liking. The two keys to 'Steel Pier' are it's spectacular, mind-numbing dancing in the first act and the emotional connection presented in the second act. If you like this sort of experience, you'd be well off to put 'Steel Pier' on your short list. (5/14/97)

From Turismo pigmale, Mexico:
STEEL PIER is one of the most exciting musicals of the season. I was really pleased with the score, the story, the sets, the costumes and of course, the cast.
STEEL PIER is a love story about a young lady anxious to win a prize at a dancing marathon and a pilot who has just three weeks left to fall in love. It is not a complex plot, it is very predictable, but it is fun. I've never heard before about those dancing marathons is Atlantic City during the 30's, and it was interesting to know how they worked and how long they were.
But the best thing of STEEL PIER is its music. This time Kander and Ebb have written catchy, romantic, old-fashioned songs that remind us the scores written by Berlin, Porter or Gershwin. I loved "Second Chance", "Everybody Dance", "Willing to Ride", the marvelous Ziemba/McDonald duet "Wet" and Debra Monk's turn in "Everybody's Girl. I just can't wait to listen to the cast recording.
Susan Stroman's choreography is dazzling, specially in "Leave the World Behind", the dream sequence in which the leads dance on an airplane. Also very enjoyable were the Ballroom scenes where the couples perform different kinds of dances.
Tony Walton's designs are very nice, I loved the Steel Pier Ballroom and The Diving Horse Tank, were the "Wet" number is performed. Sets are not as spectacular as TITANIC's, but they are colorful and original. The courtain is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen, with those changing projections on the show's logo.
Karen Ziemba is fine as Rita, but my favorite members of the cast are Debra Monk and Daniel McDonald. Both of them deliver great performances, Monk as the "Everybody's Girl" who finally falls in love with someone younger and sings the touching "Someone Older", and McDonald as the pilot, who is having his "Second Chance" to fall in love with the girl of his dreams, Rita.
I was really glad to see this show, this is the kind of show in which the audience leaves the theatre with a smile on their face and humming a tune from the show.
STEEL PIER deserves a long run at the Richard Rogers, and I hope I'll have a "second chance" to enjoy it. (5/10/97)

From SuzVanDuz:
Many talented people combined their talents to make "Steel Pier," but it all adds up to one big zero. It has a derivative, meandering book, no memorablesongs, no special moments. I think I would have been more entertained staringat the blank stage, alone with my own thoughts.
As for the performers, well, they all worked hard. Karen Ziemba is extremelycompetent, but she does not have the star presence to carry a Broadway show.I would never be able to pick her or her leading man, Daniel McDonald, out ofa line-up.
Debra Monk was woefully miscast as stereotypical over-sexed floozy and, oh,it's already been a couple of days since I saw it; I've forgotten all therest. I know everybody involved can do better next time. (5/2/97)

From Daniel R Rafinejad:
I just saw Steel Pier on April 25, its first performance after its official opening, and I am so happy to say that it is a gem of a musical-- enchanting, touching, like a sweet, gentle reverie. I'm sure some have criticized it for not breaking any new musical theatre ground, but in a way it does, because it is one of the first musicals in a long time that dares to have an unabashedly good heart, and how refreshing that is! The cast is absolutely first rate (it will be a sin if Karen Ziemba isn't showered with awards), the choreography is breathtaking, and the score is a joy to listen to. I've been humming the title tune all day. This show deserves to run forever, just like those hopeful marathon dancers that it so movingly depicts. (4/26/97)

From J. Marchese (
At 5:15, it was "on the board" at TKTS. Could things still not be boding well for STEEL PIER, the musical that initially was considered "the show to beat" and then seemed to be the recipient of negativity and disappointment in the media world? I gulped as I headed down Broadway en route to dinner.
At 7:30 when I arrived at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, surrounded by throngs of fellow playgoers, I was greeted by a "This Performance Sold Out" sign. Hmmm. When the curtain went up on the rousing overture, the audience applauded. And the applause that Karen Ziemba, Gregory Harrison and Debra Monk received upon their entrances! Wow. This was an enthusiastic audience. Thankfully, that audience reaction would not prove unfounded once I sat back in my seat and enjoyed the magic that is STEEL PIER.
No, the show is not perfect. It breaks no new ground and actually adheres to the formula for a "traditional" musical comedy. Perhaps we would have liked something daring and different from the composer/ lyricist team behind CABARET, CHICAGO and KISS OF THE SPIDER-WOMAN. Once I accepted that STEEL PIER was aiming to be a classic-style musical, though, I felt rather enchanted! I felt as if I was viewing one of those great 1960s musicals that didn't make the musical theatre history books but provided audiences with countless cheers, laughs and tears. I'm not asking for a return to the "tired businessman" genre of theatre, either, for PIER transcends that. STEEL PIER is a rare animal in the present Broadway scene; it is a well crafted respite from the spectacle-oriented pop opera, the lightweight revue or the "message" musical.
The score by John Kander and Fred Ebb lives up to their previous standards, and even includes a catchy title number. Although "Winning" (with lyrics something like "power is a powerful thing") isn't ever going to be a classic, "Everybody Dance", "Second Chances", "Everybody's Girl" and many of the other songs are genuine Broadway showtunes with clever lyrics and toe-tapping music. Add on the delicious orchestrations by Michael Gibson and the tasty choreography by Susan Stroman and there's one great ice cream sundae!
Stroman and director Scott Ellis deserve much credit for being able to make an energetic, exciting musical out of a book (by David Thompson) that revolves around exhaustion! Thompson succeeds in making the audience care about the characters, and gives the play the emotional underpinnings it needs. The show's biggest problem, however, lies in his libretto: the conclusion is straight out of a familiar Rodgers and Hammerstein show. The ending, although satisfying in that it wraps up all of the characters' lives and leaves the audience on a high note, almost cheapens the solid story that has come before. Yet it is not something that can be dramatically altered; he has based the plot around a certain, all-too-familiar plot point. However, this is a small qualm on my part.
That said, Ellis and Stroman make a dynamic team and the show flows smoothly. Karen Ziemba has the makings of a great Broadway star--a boffo singer, dancer and actress--while Gregory Harrison impresses in his none- too-friendly role. The audience eats right out of Debra Monk's hands, while Broadway newcomer Daniel McDonald has the right blend of charm and innocence to make the character of Bill seem realistic. The show is absorbing, funny, romantic and generally delightful.
STEEL PIER certainly makes for one of the most enjoyable evenings on the Great White Way. Terrific dancing, great music, a stellar cast and impressive production values; to quote the Gershwins, "Who could ask for anything more?" I, for one, can't wait for the cast album. As I saw the show in a preview (albeit a late one), there's still time for Messrs. Ellis, Thompson and Stroman to tighten up some uneven dialogue scenes or sharpen the musical numbers. That could only improve this stylish new show. STEEL PIER is one musical that should stay afloat. (4/22/97)

From Elisabeth ( New York, NY:
I saw STEEL PIER on April 2 and was completely horrified. Could this be from the same songwriting team that gave us CHICAGO? The evening was wretched from beginning to end -- and since the show is across the street from TITANIC, it looks like there are two disasters on the same block.
First of all, I'd like to point out that I find it hard to believe that nobody in the creative team saw En Garde Arts' very similar MARATHON DANCING a few years ago. MARATHON DANCING was everything SP strived to be: it perfectly captured the era (using period songs), made full characters come to life (as opposed to the cardboards cliches in SP), and was poetically powerful. You felt like you knew each of the contestants, you rooted for them, you understood the desperation that made them dance for weeks on end. I know Kander & Ebb had been trying to get the rights to THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY for years, but MARATHON DANCING is another obvious influence they may want to mention in future interviews.
And speaking of K&E... Couldn't they at least come up with ONE good song? "Running in Place" stands out but relies mostly on a catchy bass line and the memorable sight of Karen Ziemba's writhing on the floor. Meanwhile, the choreography was poorly thought out (Stroman tried to forgo props this time, but it wasn't such a good idea) and executed (several dancers visibly out of sync in the number on the plane's wings.)
Finally, SP's cast just isn't up to snuff: Ziemba is very competent but lacks that je-ne sais-quoi called "star quality". Anybody who saw the Ira Gershwin tribute on PBS will understand exactly what I mean. Gregory Harrison isn't cunning enough; he truly is a "Mr. Cellophane" -- you can see right through him. As for the unfortunate flyer... Let's just say that I've seen frozen fish sticks with more charisma.
Sorry to ramble on like this, but that show was truly embarrassing. And so you know where I'm coming from, I adored Encores' PROMISES, PROMISES. (4/21/97)

From John Salmon, Philadelphia :
If this show can borrow from "Chicago" and "Cabaret" (I was waiting for Nazi soldiers to march in during "Steel Pier's" final montage), why can't it also borrow from "A Chorus Line" and really get the ensemble involved? I felt there was a desperate need early on for a song to introduce the other marathon dancers more fully -- and more memorably.
I enjoyed the show, but was also very frustrated because of what might have been. Everytime things started to take off, they would meander to nowhere or end with a thud. But everyone worked so hard throughout. The choreography is great and the dancers have awesome talent (and stamina).
How would I make it better? By giving the secondary characters a good song by the third scene at the latest. By cutting both the airplane sequence and the embarrassing "Running in Place" number altogether. (Karen Ziemba's too good for that bit of tripe.) And then there's the cellophane wedding. Such an event might be historically accurate as far as marathons go, but it needed a little more explanation as such -- and a whole lot less camp in execution. Overall I was disappointed -- but entertained nonetheless. (4/21/97)

From Krebsman:
I saw the show at Saturday's matinee (4/19). I tried hard to like Steel Pier, but on the whole I was extremely disappointed. Despite the amazingly talented cast, the show cannot boast one drop of originality. You've seen it all before. It goes nowhere. It really has nowhere to go. To quote from one of the show's own songs it keeps running in place.
If it's a love story between a girl and a ghost, the only way they can get together is if she dies or he comes back to life. Neither happens in Steel Pier. If she supposedly learned something from knowing him, I missed it. One can forgive a musical whose book doesn't make much sense if the score is strong and the performers have pizzazz. The score is one of Kander and Ebbis weaker ones - not nearly as good as 70 Girls 70 or The Rink.
The only performer allowed to have any real pizzazz is Debra Monk in a derivative, bawdy number. Karen Ziemba demonstrates once again her technical brilliance, but the material she is given is all second rate stuff. Gregory Harrison, in good voice and confident dance-step, has one of the more unsavory roles Iive ever seen in a musical. Daniel McDonald is a real find. Heis a good-looking young leading man with an easygoing, unaffected air of manliness. His high notes sound a little strangled, but he gets away with it on charm. I predict he'll be snapped up by the movies. I also liked Alison Bevan in a smaller role.
The program says "conceived by Scott Ellis, Susan Stroman and David Thompson." What, I want to know, exactly IS this so-called "concept"? I'll bet none of them could tell you. The show was trying to be gritty and realistic and yet have ghosts and pretty girls tap-dancing on airplane wings, too. The show's most interesting moment, when the ghost reverses time and everything moves backwards in slow motion, was ultimately pointless since it was done to keep the girl in the Marathon which she later quits anyway. I'm afraid itis all a derivative mix of stereotypes. After They Shoot Horses... and June Havoc's material, Steel Pier is dangerously close to camp. After seeing the ballroom scenes, the supposedly campy dream sequence (which rips off Flying Down to Rio) comes off as rather humdrum. And then there are those echoes of "The Little Prince" and "Ghost." I'm sorry Kander and Ebb got involved in this muddle. And will somebody please take Ziemba out of this glum mess and put her in a role she can really shine in? (4/21/97)

From Piggy708
I saw Steel Pier yesterday afternoon [4/19], and I was pleasantly surprised. After all of the criticism from my friends who had seen it, I wasn't expecting much, but being an Atlantic City native, I had to see it for myself. I felt like I was home on the boardwalk listening to my grandparents tell me old stories of marathon dancing and diving horses and romance by the sea. The story is such a subtle romantic nostalgic tale, I wanted to go back in time to 1933! Hats off to the set designer, the boardwalk and beach scenes feel like the Jersey shore.
I know eveyone is gushing about Debra Monk, but I wasn't all that impressed. Not that she was bad, but she didn't do anything any other actress couldn't have done. I enjoyed her character and thought her choices were good but I wasn't blown out of the water.
I really enjoyed the entire cast, but let me talk about Karen Ziemba for a minute. I know there are some of you who disagree, but I believe that she is the true epitome of a Broadway star. An exquisite actress, singer, dancer and delightful person is hard to come by lately, and Ms. Ziemba is all that and more. Her Rita Racine is lovable but not sickening and strong but not inhuman. I was paricularly impressed with the behavior she did in her first entrance when she's on the beach and playing in the water and on the sand because I've done the same thing a million times. She gets better and better with each show I see her in, and I'm sure she is here to stay for quite a while.
Sure the show has a few adjustments that can be made, but I hate it when people get picky over little details when the show is still in previews. They'll get worked out before opening, and if not, the show is still fabulous and worthy of a good healthy run and appreciative audiences. (4/20/97)

From Roy Culver, Southport, CT:
During the first act, which seemed to go on interminably, several people in various sections of the orchestra got up and left. I could understand why, since the act dragged so much. It needs considerable tightening and, since the subject is DANCING, a really show stopping, happy, hight energy dance number is needed even to hold round out the very tepid overture (played mostly on a solo piano).
I'm glad we persevered, despite the tough going in the first act because the second was MUCH better and left us feeling that perhaps Kander and Ebb have a show here that can last after some major surgery on the first act and parts of the second.
Karen Ziemba's solo dance is reminiscent of Cassie's solo dance in A Chorus Line' quite affecting. It wasn't until Debra Monk sang "Everybody's Girl" that I sat up and thought I might be in for a good evening of theatre. Why not give her some encore verses and a chance for a reprise in Act II?
Also, her "Somebody Older" could have been a lot more poignant and convincing. It was handled as if it were an afterthought thrown in at a dull place in the show. Sad. (4/20/97)

From Martin Platt, Santa Fe, NM:
On seeing the 11 April preview: I can hear the pitch meeting now: "It's very simple - Kander & Ebb and Marathon Dancing." $7 million is immediately forthcoming.
In a few weeks that $7 million will be a tax write-off.
Thinking back to CABARET and CHICAGO, we remember two great opening numbers - "Wilkommen" and "All That Jazz". STEEL PIER opens with five minutes of dialogue - and pedestrian dialog at that.
STEEL PIER needs the kind of high concept that Fosse, Michael Bennett, Gower Champion, and Ron Field could provide. Am I the first to notice that Scott Ellis, of the two Scotts (Elliot being the other), is one of the two least creative and talented directors to hit NY in a long time? Doing a high concept musical from the ground up requires a lot more talent and imagination than doing an old fashioned revival of an odl fashioned musical like SHE LOVES ME.
There are three "leads" in STEEL PIER, all played by perfomers who are strong replacements for stars in long runs. Unfortunately none of them have that "special something" that can carry a show. A Gwen Verdon, or a Barbara Cook in the Karen Ziemba role (pick your concept) and Jerry Orbach in the Gregory Harrison role, would cover up many of the faults in the show (And might have inspired the authors to better work.) The present cast is unfailingly professional and competent. But that's it.
For a show about "dancing" there is not a single show stpping dance number. For a show about dancing, none of the principals seem to be dancers. Mr. Harrison cannot, unfortunately, sing and dance at the same time.
The second act opens with an arial acrobatic dance number which is one of the most numbingly terrible Broadway spectacles since Anne Reinking's castle kicking blitzkrieg in GOODTIME CHARLIE.
Kander & Ebb are two of our Broadway treasures. Can we find them a book writer, some stars, and a director?
For the difference a director can make, just see TITANIC, where a brilliant director, Richard Jones, takes material perhaps not highly superior, and creates a tight, slick, focused, production of the highest standards - and makes performers that we might think of as "secondary" appear as full star partners in his enterprise. (4/19/97)

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