Every so often Ford's Theatre mines the field of black music, puts together two acts' worth of songs and baptizes the assemblage "a new musical," "a musical revue" or--in the case of "Dancin' in the Street!," which opened last night--"a new musical entertainment." It would probably be more accurate to call them "staged concerts," were it not for the fact that having "musical" in the billing somehow implies a greater expenditure of money and effort.
So "a new musical entertainment" it is.
This one turns its sights on the 1960s, when the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations and the Shirelles reigned triumphant. It is fairly safe to say that if you have happy memories of such songs as "Please Mr. Postman," "My Guy," "Stop! In the Name of Love" and "Nitty Gritty," then you will be favorably disposed toward "Dancin' in the Street!" But while the show will no doubt please the already committed, it may have a tougher time winning fresh converts.
"Dancin' in the Street!" exudes energy, but its energies are put strictly in the service of imitation. The eight performers who constitute the cast--four men, four women--are clearly wearing personalities borrowed from the '60s, a time when most of them, it would appear, were still in grade school. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it goes only so far. At one point or another, interpretation has to take over.
After a while, you yearn for one of these eight to break out of the syncopated mold and assert a theatrical presence all his own. "Dancin' in the Street!" is a hard-working show, but it's doing its work without the benefit of any real star power. Only one performer, Lewis Robinson, suggests that he has the stuff to stand out from the group.
Because this time Ford's has shelled out generously for the physical accoutrements, "Dancin' in the Street!" looks far more substantial than most of its predecessors. Florence Klotz has designed two distinct wardrobes for the cast--funky street garb for the first act and elegant evening wear for the second. The men's lavender tuxedos, shoes and vests (red ties, socks and boutonnieres) get gasps of approval. Then the women slither on in low-cut beaded gowns slit up the thigh and gold-lame' wraps. More gasps. The transformation from grit to glitter, however, seems lifted from "Dreamgirls."
James Noone's blue-mirrored staircase set comes with changing backdrops and a perch for the six-piece onstage band, led by John Simmons, while Jeff Davis has supplied a variety of lighting--some of it hackneyed (the old mirrored prom ball), but some of it warm and seductive. Director/choreographer Billy Wilson has punctuated the vocalizing with passing tributes to the twist, the frug and the mashed potato, among others, and he gets his limber cast gyrating to the sweating point. But the dancing is primarily impressive as a group endeavor: eight bodies in pelvic harmony. Again, you wish that someone would kick his way out of the ensemble.
Ultimately, the show boils down to its 30-odd numbers and, good-natured as it is, "Dancin' in the Street!" fails to reinvent many of them, except in all the obvious ways. The show has this in common with Muzak: it is very much of a piece. Armsted Christian and Teresa Reese singing "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" are not all that different from Anna Greene and Everett Gibson singing "You're All I Need to Get By."
The fervor such numbers arouse in an audience is, I suspect, the fervor of recognition. Two blocks away in the Warner Theatre, Lena Horne is also treading through the past, resuscitating a whole career. But that remarkable performer is making it new again. In "Dancin' in the Street!" the past remains mostly in the past.
DANCIN' IN THE STREET! Conceived by Sheldon Goldberg; directed and choreographed by Billy Wilson; sets, James Noone; costumes, Florence Klotz; musical direction, John Simmons; lighting, Jeff Davis; with Armsted Christian, Everett Gibson, Anna Greene, Raymond Patterson, Terese Reese, Lewis Robinson, Valerie Scott, Darcel Spear. At Ford's Theatre through May 29.