The Stardust Ballroom Springs Back to Life at Feinstein’s/54Below

Loni Ackerman, Lee Roy Reams

Billy Goldenberg

 

By Myra Chanin

 

Like many of the folks at Feinstein’s/54Below on Tuesday night September 4, I remembered the musical Ballroom very fondly. How fondly? Fondly enough that as soon as I heard that it was being revived I added that show to my wish list. My wish was granted! I scored one very precious seat.

Ballroom was American musical theater director, writer, choreographer, dancer, eighteen-time Tony-award nominee and seven-time Tony-award Winner Michael Bennett’s initial post A Chorus Line Broadway start-up. Wow! Music by Billy Goldenberg. The Brooklyn-born American composer, best-known for his TV and Film collaborations with Steven Spielberg, who’d also composed the music for the TV Film that this musical was based on. Double Wow! Lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman who’d supplied the rhymes which had supplied the meaning for “The Windmills of My Mind” and “The Way we Were.” Triple Wow! And I admit I loved the blue-collar story about spunky Bea Asher, a widow before her time, who launches a surprisingly successful antique shop, and is told by her tough-talking friend Angie, a waitress, to start living again. Angie drags her off to the Stardust Ballroom where Bea stands nervously watching the dancers until Al Rossi, a Shakespeare quoting mailman, asks her out on the floor.

I was familiar with the scene and the players. I myself had occasionally hung out at Wagner’s in North Philadelphia long before I reached middle age. Like Bea. I was not looking for love or even conversation, just distraction. Actually, I just wanted to spend a few minutes on a dance floor with someone who danced to the beat of the same drummer as I did.

In preparation for Robert W. Schneider’s 54 Sings Ballroom production I pre-streamed the show’s CD. The first track, The Stardust Waltz, had me whirling solo through my foyer, but as the CD played on the music thrilled me less. Except for Dorothy Loudon as the widow, Bea Asher, the recording seemed lifeless. The live performance had to be better and I’m pleased to report that 54 Sings Ballroom was. Here’s why. Bennett had cut songs during previews with great Bergman lyrics which made the thoughts and feelings of the character come alive. Why? To make room for more dancing. What else would you expect from a choreographer?

 

Cast of 54 Sings Ballroom

 

54 Sings Ballroom opens with Jane Summerhays breaking your heart with Bergmans’ hands-on lyrics in “Who Gave You Permission,” (cut by Bennett for its downer vibe) as Bea admonishes the ghost of her husband of 38 years, who’d promised they’d grow old together, for dying, asking “How do you sleep when nobody’s snoring?” or “Who will correct me when I’m right?” and reminds him of “So many things we didn’t do yet. March 28 we leave for Bermuda.”

Celia Berk sharpened my insight into Bea’s life more keenly in “The Job Application,” (also cut by Michael Bennett.) Bea was a High school grad. Previous job, wife. Skills include cooking and cleaning. What does she want? “Her old job back.”

Outside the Ballroom Bea nervously revs herself to enter singing “A Terrific Band and a Real Nice Crowd,” in language appropriate to both herself and Angie — a terrific tune with a great catalogue of a middle-aged lonely woman overcoming her fears. “What if no one asks me to dance? What if someone asks me to dance?” Then Lee Roy Reams and Loni Ackerman as the ballroom band singers pick up the pace and tempo with “Song for Dancing,” a really lively Lindy, followed by “One by One” sung by Lennie Watts and Debbie Zecher as band singers #2 before Natalie Douglas whisks everyone back to the “sleepy lagoon 1940’s,” with sensuality and charm.

Diane Findley, Jim Brochu

 

Klea Blackhurst peps things up with “Somebody Did Alright for Herself,” to report she met a man. A mailman who quotes Shakespeare, I remember Vincent Gardenia in the part, a short, decent, ordinary guy. Out comes Jim Brochu. What an improvement. So handsome. So dynamic. Available? Not really. He’s married, but he sings two songs not on the CD and one that was, “I Love to Dance,” with an energized Diane Findlay.

Then the Queen of New York Cabaret, Marvelous Marilyn Maye, appears. She seems to get younger every day, and she blows the roof off with “Fifty Percent” about she’d rather have half of her married lover than all of anyone else. Equally Marvelous Tedd Firth backs her up on the piano.

Marilyn Maye

 

Composer Billy Goldenberg himself closed the show talk-singing “I Wish You a Waltz,” after admitting Marilyn blew his mind. He’d never heard “Fifty Percent,” sung like that because the !@#$%^&*! Michael Bennett had cut the wonderful verse. Billy should get out more. Marilyn ALWAYS sings “Fifty Percent” with the verse and the well of emotion in practically every show she performs.

Also noteworthy were Patti Marian, Don Johanson, Jim Walton, Neva Small and Steve Schlachlin. Kudos also to Joshua Zecher-Ross for his musical direction and to Producer director Robert W. Schneider for ably keeping the story moving.

Photos: Maryann Lopinto

Video: Magda Katz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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