By Brian Thomas
The choice the University of Utah Theater Department made to produce Steel Pier at the Marriott Center for Dance in Salt Lake City seems like a bold one. Of course, I should start by saying, I don’t usually enjoy musicals. I’m the type of person that remains unimpressed with La La Land. I think West Side Story is okay. Nevertheless, I found the University of Utah Theater’s production of Steel Pier absolutely charming, intriguing, and captivating. I believe the reason this production appealed to me is not because of the catchy songs, amazing dance choreography, or the adept portrayal of humor, but the alluring whimsical elements woven into the story and brought out in the direction.
Steel Pier is a lively musical that takes place at a dance marathon at the Steel Pier in Jersey City. As The Great Depression has set its claws firmly into the American economy, scores of young people desperately seek any means to gain fortune to survive. From this desperation arose the popularity of dance marathons. As their name implies, these endurance events involved couples dancing for several days or even weeks, where contestants were fed and sheltered at a time when much of America was struggling to find basic amenities. The radio broadcasts of these events were recognized as some of the earliest “reality shows” as audiences listened to the struggle through their long agony.
It is at one of these dance marathons, held on the renowned Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey, that we find “Lindy’s Lovebird,” the moniker of Rita Racine (Mikki Reeve), a well-known veteran of these dance marathons used as the face of marathons organized and produced by Mick Hamilton (Robert Scott Smith). The musical revolves around the relationship between Rita and Mick as well as a mysterious stunt air pilot, Bill Kelly (Bailey Cummings). Bill holds a raffle ticket entitling him to a dance and a kiss from the dance marathon glamour girl, to whom he has fallen in love with. They find themselves partnered together in the marathon, and throughout the event Rita finds herself falling for Bill. Their love is ephemeral, however, as Mick pulls the strings of the event, leaving everyone questioning what is real and what is not in the delirium of the rigorous event.
What I thoroughly enjoyed about the play was a dive into magical realism typical of the South American literature of Isabel Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The characters are certainly as large, as Mick represents a devilish puppet master, stripping the contestants of their free will by manipulating them with money, food, and shelter. Diametrically opposed to Mick is Bill, the all-American stunt pilot, who literally falls from the sky in his plane to offer Rita a way out of the maniacal world of the dance marathon circuit. This magical realism is reinforced as time becomes subjective and the stage is visited with ethereal dancers. The fantastical nature of the play is bolstered with incredible dance numbers, choreographed by Denny Berry, who doubles as the Director.
The acting is strong in this production, carried by Smith. While not the central character of the show, the performance as a manipulative, anger-filled tyrant is powerful as demonstrated in the number “A Powerful Thing” Smith’s character dominates every aspect of the story and is careful not to overpower Reeve’s performance. Reeve has her work cut out for her as she must portray a character experiencing a roller-coaster of emotions and multiple facades. Reeve does this well, generating a shy charisma with Cummings in the number “Wet” while still able to swing back to the tortuous ambivalence of Mick as portrayed in the song “Running in Place.” Cummings plays a subdued Bill Kelly, timid when in the sights of Reeve’s character, but this nevertheless serves as a counterbalance to Smith’s bold portrayal of Mick.
The show was nearly stolen by the chorus of other characters on stage. As every character in the dance marathon is struggling to gain attention and sponsorship that will hopefully lift them above the Great Depression, there is no shortage of mesmerizing songs and dances. Jamie Landrum’s portrayal of Shelby Stevens, a former cook in a lumberjack camp, in the song “Everybody’s Girl” is one such instance, describing her sultry past. Alice Ryan’s performance of “Two Little Words” as Precious McGuire is another such instance that portrays the desperation of the times and the yearning to rise up out of poverty as she defies Mick to drag out her performance as long as possible.
Despite these near upstages, Rita and Mick regain command of the show in the final minutes. As it becomes more apparent how much Mick needs Rita and Rita needs Mick, not for love but for show business, their animosity towards each other plays out in public. This powerful back-and-forth between an angry Mick and a defiant Rita culminates in a tense climax through the duet version of “Steel Pier.”
The real show-stealer, though, was myself. Before the beginning of the show, audience members were asked if they wanted to be seated onstage as part of the play. Eager for the more intimate theatrical experience, I hastily volunteered. The onstage audience was encouraged to throw prop coins at the actors’ feet whenever prompted by Mick (another example of Mick’s control, not only manipulating the characters but also the audience.) During one scene, Happy and Precious debate about staying or leaving, slamming their hands down upon my table, immediately making me an unwitting collaborator in the musical. Happy placed a suitcase in my lap, and I did my best to improvise appropriate facial expressions in response to their argument. Needless to say, I received many accolades and expect to be nominated for a Tony.
The songs and choreography of this musical are a natural fit for a play about dancing and singing. They fit the usual catchy showtunes of many musicals while incorporating the jazz of the era. A full orchestra sits beneath the pier onstage, conducted by Alex Marshall. The live band performance certainly adds a heightened level of authenticity to the production. The songs range from catchy and upbeat, to morose and are carried strongly by the cast and chorus, leaving an indelible impression on this audience member. As I write this, the chorus of the title number, “Steel Pier” still resonates through my head.
Lastly, Christa Didier’s choice of costumes fit the time and era of the early 30s, influenced by the late 20s leading into the Depression and would certainly make any vintage clothes collector swoon. The outfits mix modesty with seduction, and lively prints that defy the lean years of those times. The real standout in costume selection would have to be the cellophane dresses worn as an advertising gimmick revealing the bodies of the recalcitrant dancers forced to wear them, as they turn their bodies into objects.
Steel Pier really fits the bill for those seeking an exciting and visually appealing production that one might expect from a musical about singing and dancing. This play is also captivating in its commentary on fame and show business by portraying the lengths people will go to to attain just a little bit of it, particularly in desperate times. The elements of surrealism and magical realism give the production an extra dose of intrigue, adding depth to the story as a whole. The balance between humor and tragedy is well-maintained and conveyed. Some of the humor might be a bit racy for younger audiences, such as “Everybody’s Girl,” as well as “Wet,” and there may be more skin than more conservative audiences may be accustomed to, but none of these elements should be cause to prevent all audiences from enjoying this production. Finally, if you go to see Steel Pier at the University of Utah, I encourage you to volunteer to sit on stage. You just might become a part of it all.
The University of Utah Theatre Department presents Steel Pier by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Marriott Center for Dance 330 S 1500 E #106 (across from the Marriott Library on the University of Utah Campus) Sept. 15-17, 21-25, 7:30 PM Matinee: Sept. 16, 17, 23, 24, 2:00 PM Tickets: $18 GA / $15 Seniors, Military / $8.50 Students Contact: 801-585-3816 The University of Utah Theater Department Facebook Page Steel Pier Facebook Event