“Men and me are like pianos – when they get upright, I feel grand”
Steel Pier is one of Kander and Ebb’s lesser known works: its initial 1997 run (featuring Kristin Chenoweth’s Broadway debut) lasted just a few months and it is only now that the show is receiving its professional European premiere at the Union Theatre. In some respects, it is not hard to see why: David Thompson’s bland book lacks any sort of dramatic drive or interest, and Kander and Ebb’s score misses the deliciously dark edge that characterises much of their best work. But this highly energetic production from Paul Taylor-Mills has a dancing charm which lifts the entertainment factor.
We’re in Atlantic City in the midst of the Great Depression, where exploitative Mick Hamilton is running a marathon dance competition where the last couple dancing will win a cash prize. His secret weapon is veteran of such competitions Rita Racine, but she is tired and determined that this will be her last danceathon and her partner has failed to turn up. Stepping in at the last minute is mysterious flyboy Bill Kelly and as they progress through the contest, Rita finds her attentions and affections torn between these two men.
But though this love story runs through the centre of Steel Pier, the show really comes alive in the dance marathon sequences with Richard Jones’ frequently awe-inspiring choreography working his ensemble extremely hard, but to glorious effect. And the stories of the couples, their bitter rivalries, fraught relationships and the sheer desperation that drives them to try and eke out a living this way are vividly drawn. It’s then a shame that a piece of audience participation that initially seems inspires ends up rather misjudged in the way that it almost belittles the experience of these dancers.
And the central love triangle struggles both in its anodyne plotting – key revelations are telegraphed way too heavily – and a lack of chemistry between its leads. Sarah Galbraith battles valiantly against some horrendous green chiffon to bring some fine-voiced personality to Rita, but as handsome as Jay Rincon’s Bill is, his comparatively weaker voice is a poor match in their duets and little spark exists between them. Instead, it is in the ensemble, and particularly in Aimie Atkinson’s superb Shelby Stevens who delivers ‘Everybody’s Girl’ with a delectable tartness, where Steel Pier is at its finest.