|Brian Stokes Mitchell and Laura Osnes, stars of The Band Wagon.|
Though both are deceased, their works are currently lighting up the Great White Way from 42nd Street where Wonderful Town presides at the magnificently restored Lyric Theater all the way up to 56th Street where Encores at City Center is presenting The Band Wagon in an art deco palace suited to the occasion.
Still later this season the Comden and Green musical On The Twentieth Century will return to Broadway with an all-star cast.
But, speaking of stars, what Broadway star could be bigger that Brian Stokes Mitchell? Even though he hasn't been seen in a musical for ten years, Stokes Mitchell returns to form in this clever, playful rendering of The Band Wagon,
And wow, how great it is to have him back!
The Band Wagon (with music by Arthur Schwartz and lyrics by Howard Dietz) arrived on Broadway in 1931 as a revue built around the extraordinary talents of Fred and Adele Astaire, the sister-brother dance team appearing in their last show together. Though Fred appeared with many other dance partners (including Ginger Rogers) on stage and screen in the years that followed The Band Wagon, Fred and Adele were said to have brought a magic to their movements that was never equaled.
Based on a book by George S. Kaufman, The Band Wagon came to the screen in 1953 with a screenplay by Comden and Green and Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in the starring roles, all under the direction of Vincente Minelli.
Obviously, as a film The Band Wagon could not merely be a revue. So, Comden and Green stitched together a classic show-biz tale with a few surprising twists and turns. What we have then is a show about putting on a show -- always a tricky undertaking. On top of that, we have a show within a show that's also part of a musical about musicals.
The whole show revolves around stage and screen star Tony Hunter (Brian Stokes Mitchell), a veteran of musical comedy who is concerned that his career might be in decline. His good friends Lester (Michael McKean) and Lily (Tracey Ullman) Marton have written a stage show that they believe is perfect for his comeback. But there's a history between Tony and Lester and (particularly) Lily that's not altogether perfect.
Still, Tony signs up, despite misgivings. But then, the foppish director, Jeffrey Cordova (Tony Sheldon) changes the light comedy into a dark reinterpretation of the Faust legend, with himself as the Devil and Tony as the Faust character. Tony also feels intimidated by the youth and beauty of his female costar Gabrielle "Gaby" Gerard (Laura Osnes). Unbeknownst to him, she is just as insecure in his presence, awed by his long stardom.
Eventually, it all proves too much for Tony. He walks out, but Gaby speaks with him alone and they work out their differences. They also begin to fall in love, though she already has a commitment to the show's choreographer Paul Byrd (Michael Berresse).
When the first out-of-town tryout in Philadelphia proves to be a disaster . . . .
Well, let's stop the story right there in Philadelphia. That's as good a place as any, right? After all, Philadelphia was a notoriously dreadful tryout town.
But we really want you to see The Band Wagon to find out the rest of the story and, more importantly to witness the extraordinary talents that have been assembled for this new production with a newly-adapted book by Douglas Carter Bean and direction and choreography by Kathleen Marshall.
If for no other reason than the dazzling presence of Brian Stokes Mitchell, this show deserves your attention. Stokes Mitchell shows us what it is to be a Broadway leading man. Charming, sensitive, debonaire, willful, graceful and in full control of his masterful vocal powers, Stokes Mitchell could teach many of Broadway's younger "stars" a thing or two about stage presence. He takes your breathe away. And his co-stars (Ullman, Osnes, Sheldon, McKean and Berresse) are well-suited to the business at hand also.
Plus, the music by Schwartz and Dietz will have you humming: By Myself, You and the Night and the Music, New Sun in the Sky, Something to Remember You By, I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan, Dancing in the Dark and the irresistible That's Entertainment! On top of that, there are the captivating novelty numbers: I Love Louisa, Triplets and Louisiana Hayride.
It's all great fun and it reflects a growing need that audiences seem to be expressing for big, frolicking musicals with known stars - shows that give them a chance to escape the horrors of a world that seems scarier every day. The Band Wagon is just such a show.
The Band Wagon's limited run continues through November 16 only but hopes are high that this vehicle will find a more permanent venue on Broadway soon.
Move over, Hugh Jackman. Broadway's pre-eminent song and dance man is back in town!
Originally published 11/10/14.