The Happy Hoofer

Romance Language: Racey and Lemenager doing Astaire and Rogers in Never Gonna Dance.Photo: Joan Marcus

The obvious lesson to be derived from Never Gonna Dance is that you cannot adapt a Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers movie musical for the stage unless you have a male and female lead who, even if they don’t erase the memory of those glorious stars, can at least stand comparison with them. Here we have, in the Astaire part of the hoofer Lucky Garnett, Noah Racey, a bland chorus-boy type who dances well, sings and acts passably, but hasn’t much charm. As the dance instructress Penny Carroll, the Rogers part, we get Nancy Lemenager, who also dances well but sings indifferently, acts woodenly, and has neither looks nor charm. “When my chin is on the ground,” runs one of her lyrics—unfortunate, because her chin always does seem to strain for the ground.

To make matters worse—albeit also, in some ways, better—the second leads radiate lead-eclipsing charm. As Penny’s wise and wisecracking sidekick, Mabel, Karen Ziemba has talent and personality to spare but, though an outstanding dancer, is not given much terpsichorean leeway lest she steal the show from Lemenager, which she more or less does anyway. As her vis-à-vis Alfred J. Morganthal, a bum who was once a super-bum, Peter Gerety exudes enough jovial impishness to make imperfect singing easily forgivable.

Then there are the supporting roles that—partly by the often but not always witty dialogue of Jeffrey Hatcher, partly by the overemphatic direction of Michael Greif—push sprightly humor into adipose caricature. Thus Peter Bartlett’s desperate dance-school owner, named Pangborn after Hollywood’s swishest comic, is amusing, but his camping is one step short of Mario Cantone’s horrible act in The Violet Hour. Similarly, David Pittu’s fake-Latino heartthrob is pitched somewhere between drollness and dreadfulness and amasses low-level laughs from comedy’s trash cans, admittedly eliciting audience delight.

But Never Gonna Dance is largely an excuse for recycling some of the famous tunes Jerome Kern wrote to lyrics by Dorothy Fields and other accomplished lyricists, inherited from the source, the movie Swing Time. These songs are of two kinds. First, golden standards such as “Who,” “The Song Is You,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” and “A Fine Romance,” which, however, tend to lose some luster by the imperfect renditions they mostly get. Second, estimable lesser songs that, when performed by Ziemba (“Shimmy With Me” and “I Got Love”), register to their utmost but yet still remain lesser.

Robin Wagner’s sets are not only good in themselves, they also cleverly invoke the stage design of 1936, the period of the show. William Ivey Long’s jaunty costumes, Paul Gallo’s appropriately brash lighting, and Harold Wheeler’s apposite orchestrations contribute handsomely.

And then there is the show’s strongest suit, the dances by the master choreographer Jerry Mitchell. These produce wonders right and left but, however well executed, sacrifice some sheen to the principals’ anti- charisma. Still, a comic number like the “I Won’t Dance” tap dance in Grand Central Terminal is as exhilarating as anything you’ve ever seen, and several others are only a hop and a skip behind. However, the numbers for the black dance couple, Spud and Velma (Eugene Fleming and Deidre Goodwin), while expertly performed, seem conventional, probably deliberately so as not to detract from the leads. All in all, though, when Never Gonna Dance dances, it is, so to speak, on safe ground. Even if it can’t quite convince me that renting Swing Time at your video store doesn’t make you feel more expansive, while also being less expensive.

I never read Birdy, the 1978 best-selling novel by the pseudonymous William Wharton, though I have heard much good about it. I did, however, see the otherwise undistinguished movie version in which Matthew Modine did yeoman’s work as the title character. Now the MacArthur-“genius”-grant-winning playwright Naomi Wallace has adapted it for the stage appealingly enough—certainly to better effect than her own pretentious original plays. This is the story of two working-class boyhood friends, the earthy Al and the aptly nicknamed Birdy, who is obsessed with birds: He accumulates and tries to emulate them, talks to them, even has a sort of love affair with one of them, and attempts by various outlandish and often perilous means—including weird wings made mostly of tin—to replicate their flight. Girls, despite Al’s suasions, do not interest Birdy.

Now, at the conclusion of World War II, both guys are wounded: Sergeant Al physically, with a shattered jaw for which his face is bandaged; Private Birdy psychically, retreating into the squatting posture of an unfledged bird and espousing an obstinate mutism. Birdy’s medical officer in a Kentucky military hospital, Major White, has Al transferred there, in the hope that he may coax his old chum back to normality. The play shuttles between boyhood adventures and misadventures in which Birdy tries to take wing, and hospital scenes in which he cowers speechless with a haunted stare, while Al, when not being hectored by White, strives desperately to animate his unresponsive friend.

The way the play moves backward and forward in time, but turns space into a superimposition comprising both past and present, is quite ingenious and under Lisa Peterson’s fine direction allows six good actors to strut their wares. I have nothing but admiration for Zachary Knighton and Peter Stadlen as the young Al and Birdy, Richard Bekins as the quietly authoritarian Major White, Teagle F. Bougere as a conscientious objector and hospital orderly, and Ted Schneider as the grown Birdy, with especial praise for Adam Rothenberg in the most demanding role of the adult Al. The bird business seems to be a metaphor for homoerotic alienation, interesting but ultimately unconvincing, particularly in the last scene, whose poeticism truly flies off the handle.

It might have helped if the set designer, Riccardo Hernández, had had a more generous budget, but Gabriel Berry’s costumes, Scott Zielinski’s lighting, and David Van Tieghem’s music cannot be faulted, and the play certainly does not bore. Yet neither—any more than Birdy for all his aerobatic, if not acrobatic, endeavors—does it manage to soar.

The Happy Hoofer