In the University of Utah Theatre Department’s first show of the season, “Steel Pier,” audience members are transported back several decades into 1933 Atlantic City. But theater goers anxious to escape into a nostalgic appreciation of a similar time may wish to look elsewhere. In the performance I saw on Sept. 14, the show was hardly content to present a warm and fuzzy vision of a foregone era. It instead focused on the dark side of the decade’s economic crisis.
The central action takes place during a marathon dance contest as desperate couples compete for weeks on end in hopes of winning a cash prize. At the center of the narrative is stunt pilot Bill Kelly (portrayed by Bailey Cummings), who is serendipitously partnered with dance celebrity Rita Racine (Mikki Reeve). The two seem destined for an unexpected romance, but they face a major obstacle — Racine’s deceitful husband Mick (Robert Scott Smith). Meanwhile, the show also portrays the lives and relationships of the other dancers in the contest, and as the number of couples remaining steadily shrinks, romance and tragedy ensue.
This production certainly has lots to recommend. The show’s dance-centered narrative necessitates solid choreography. Luckily, the show’s dancing is uniformly excellent, and Denny Berry’s choreography is fluid, clever and engaging. Vocally, the ensemble is spot-on, and the live orchestra (conducted by Alex Marshall) does justice to the extensive score. Scenic designer Gage Williams created a sweeping set that made the most of the small stage space. (As a result, the stage did sometimes feel crowded during larger dance numbers.) Also, Christa Didier’s period costumes are eye-catching and add to the texture of the setting. The production, as a whole, was the product of talented individuals giving impressive work in many capacities.
The chief problem of this production mostly lies in the show’s book, written by Broadway veteran David Thompson. “Steel Pier” hints at themes of economic desperation and national disillusionment, but never presents them in a clear or effective way. Too often the musical aims to satirize conventions of the time period, but in the end merely replicates them. The show, then, is never really able to justify its own existence. Meanwhile, the majority of scenes are not particularly entertaining: many jokes don’t land, and emotional climaxes often fall flat.
Unfortunately, much of the cast falls victim to the book’s weakness as even energetic, likable performers struggle to grasp their bland characters. In the moments where emotionally complex material emerges beyond the musical’s broad strokes, individual actors are able to break through.
Alice Ryan has a lot of fun as a waifish, ditzy diva, and Jamie Landrum is charismatic and soulful as a promiscuous dancer concealing a generous heart. Both of these roles are stereotypical at their core, but these actresses use their songs to make the characters feel genuine, even idiosyncratic. And Reeve deserves special recognition for her impressive work in a difficult role as Racine. She authentically communicates both Racine’s charm and sorrow, and her solo number, “Running in Place,” is the highlight of the show. When Reeve’s powerful voice reckons with the reality of her hardships, the musical becomes immediately compelling. It’s a moment of emotional clarity and honesty that the rest of the show, despite its many commendable qualities, can never fully manage.