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Flash Broadway Journal, 12-9: Encores
"Never Gonna Dance" Does, and How; Audrey II All Over Again

By Susan Yung
Copyright 2003 Susan Yung

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NEW YORK -- "Never Gonna Dance," an elegant, romantic tribute to bygone New York now playing at the Broadhurst, is a show for people who love dance. It's based on the film "Swing Time" starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, perhaps the pinnacle of a genre in which song and dance were inseparable, where a tricky situation could always be fixed with a good spin around the dance floor -- bald American optimism at its best. Jerome Kern wrote the songs to lyrics by notables such as Johnny Mercer, P.G. Wodehouse and Ira Gershwin; Michael Greif ("Rent") directed, and Jerry Mitchell choreographed this show, written by Jeffrey Hatcher. In a nutshell, "Never Gonna Dance" is the story of a dancer who, against tough odds, ultimately pursues his art and the woman he truly loves. This after he goes to New York, having sworn to his prospective father in law to earn money without doing what he loves best -- dancing.

The story and songs, comfortingly familiar, are not exactly news. The show's big revelation is Noah Racey as leading man Lucky. As the show, seen December 2, began and Racey appeared, he looked like a regular handsome fellow in a tux. Then he started a rat-a-tat tap sequence, displaying quicksilver feet, remarkable lightness, and confident partnering. He artfully channeled reverberating energy from tapping through his upper body and hands, which always made a finished line. (Too often, tap dancers forget about what their upper half looks like as they emphasize their footwork, sinking into their torsos or jerking their arms to balance their weight.)

In jazzier numbers, Racey's sharp focus added a contemporary, athletic snap. After a few songs, including "I Won't Dance" and " Pick Yourself Up," he seemed to glow with the aura that accompanies excellence -- a star in the works. Racey displayed physical comic genius as he tried to resist dancing to the everyday rhythms in Grand Central Station, where his tapping feet led his body on a goose chase. He faces the unenviable task of being compared to Astaire, and in his first major Broadway role, succeeds impressively. It doesn't hurt that he could be Astaire's stunt double: lithe, pale, lanky; if slightly more patrician looking.

Nancy Lemenager is Penny, a dance instructor who captures Lucky's heart. She is striking, with hair the color of her namesake, large features, with a gymnast's build and toughness to match. Racey and Lemenager charmed as dance partners, particularly in "The Way You Look Tonight," one of Mitchell's best numbers, performed on a skyscraper under construction. The pair danced on 18" wide "beams" and small platforms spaced apart, between which Racey swept Lemenager high in daring circles. They were convincingly tentative at the start of the number; their growing confidence in the situation at hand as well as their burgeoning love made the song all the more rewarding. While both actors were clearly chosen for their dancing, their voices, which strained at times between breaks, gave them a sympathetic everyman feel. The mirrored set for the title number, designed by Robin Wagner, hinted at a deco elegance, but the stage is too shallow for the big circular sweeps that would've evoked the sweeping glamour of the film. Additional songs in this score of greatest hits included "She Didn't Say Yes, She Didn't Say No," "The Song Is You," "A Fine Romance," "Remind Me," and the title song.

Broadway veterans peppered the supporting cast. Karen Ziemba, as Penny's friend Mabel, represented that special breed of true Broadway belters. Peter Gerety played her beau, a bum and ex-Wall Street tycoon who hits it rich again. Eugene Fleming and Diedre Goodwin portrayed dance partners in a competition, performing a jazzier, bawdier style with tremendous adrenaline. Mitchell's ballroom and tap choreography wistfully evoked a more romantic era, but his best work involved comedic or dramatic settings. The invigorating dancing, wonderful songs, and the fresh talent make for an enjoyably nostalgic evening in which we are reminded that to dance is to live.

The original production of "Little Shop of Horrors," based on a 1960 film, ran for more than 2,200 performances starting in 1982. Howard Ashman wrote the book and lyrics for the show, with music by Alan Menken, choreography by Kathleen Marshall, and direction by Jerry Zaks. It is the tale of a little bloodthirsty plant related to the Venus flytrap, Audrey II, that basically takes over the world as it grows bigger and needs ever more blood to be sated. Audrey II, impressively voiced by baritone Michael-Leon Wooley, dominates the show, in various and growing puppet guises created by Jim Henson Co. and Martin P. Robinson.

'Little Shop,' seen October 9 at the Virginia, doesn't feature much dance. The set, dominated by the florist's shop where Audrey II is bred, pushes the action way forward and up so that sometimes the actors navigated the apron's edge like a balance beam, or squeezed into a flattened balcony box. This setup didn't give Marshall much space in which to create dances, but the ones she choreographed, mainly for the fictional Ronnettes (the irrepressible DeQuina Moore, Trisha Jeffrey, and Carla J. Hargrove) added an incisive spunkiness and verve to the proceedings. This Greek chorus trio bopped, gestured, and mugged in their spiced up schoolgirl kilts while belting out the music.

While Seymour, the plant's inventor who works at Mushnik's Florist (Hunter Foster); Audrey, an employee at the plant shop (Kerry Butler); and shop owner Mr. Mushnik (Rob Bartlett) discussed the botanical oddity, the Ronnettes popped up behind the shop window to help describe their words with funny mime. Douglas Sills competed for the spotlight with Audrey II by performing several characters, most memorably Audrey's boyfriend, a sadistic dentist, and seemed to genuinely relish acting over the top. Foster is well-suited for the stage, with his rubbery face and donut-shaped mouth, which emitted a clear tenor voice. Butler's pipsqueaky voice and super-girly body language made for a good foil against Foster's nerdiness. But the clear star of the show is Audrey II, whose finale appearance is one for the ages, seeming more at home in an interactive Disney ride than a show.

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