This musical by Kander and Ebb – receiving its European professional debut 15 years after its first Broadway outing – is a slight but enjoyable piece, loosely based on the 1969 film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
The plot centres around a dance marathon in Depression-era Atlantic City, where a disparate and desperate group of couples compete for a grand prize of $2,000. Chief among the competitors is the idealistic showgirl, ‘Lindy’s lovebird’ Rita Racine, who dreams of retiring from the circuit with the prize money, only to be roped into a tacky publicity stunt by her scheming (and secret) husband, the event’s MC Mick Hamilton, a suitably sleazy Ian Knauer. Racine’s partner in the dance is the stunt pilot Bill Kelly, who is hiding a secret of his own.
While the plot may be wafer thin (and Kelly’s ‘secret’ obvious from the first minute we see him), what Steel Pier lacks in narrative tension it makes up for in energy and charm. Sarah Galbraith makes a plucky and likeable heroine, and while Jay Rincon’s Bill is a little thin-voiced and sometimes struggles with the musical numbers, he has a gauche, lanky appeal, providing a boyish contrast to the Machiavellian Hamilton. The central pair’s romance may not be particularly compelling, but it’s nicely handled and there’s a pleasing theme of female emancipation running through the piece, that suggests if Rita wants her dreams to come true, she needs to rely on herself, not a man, to fulfil them.
A solid cast handle the song and dance numbers with aplomb, even if the songs themselves are fairly bland and forgettable. Stand-outs include Aimie Atkinson’s splendidly slutty rendition of ‘Everybody’s Girl’, with Atkinson bringing real heart to a character who trades on the myth of her own availability only to find it’s that which stops her getting the security she really wants. Lisa-Anne Wood also excels as the slyly ambitious Precious, who transforms from country naïf to full-on demented diva as her scheming comes to a head.
Director Paul Taylor-Mills and choreographer Richard Jones (now on their third collaboration, their most recent being the revival of Rent at Greenwich Theatre) use the compact space of the Union Theatre well (helped by designer David Shields); the cramped atmosphere becoming increasingly claustrophobic as the dancers start to tire. Giving the audience coins to throw at their favourites is also a clever touch, making us complicit in the spectacle – how can we disapprove, when we are part of the show?
Though the piece doesn’t shy away from the genuine economic hardship that motivates the competitors, the action is mainly played for laughs, with the dancers returning after the interval in wild disarray – though a Thriller-style ensemble piece where they exhaustedly shuffle like zombies could also be read as a performance of marionettes, reminding us once more that they are wearing themselves out for our amusement. The fact that it doesn’t exactly require a great imaginative leap to connect such tawdry entertainment with our current thirst for reality TV – with all its staged social conflicts and deliberate humiliations – means that Steel Pier feels surprisingly resonant; the routines may have changed but we’re still paying the desperate to dance.