EVERYONE WANTS to like "Grind." In this year's barren musical comedy field, the big, splashy musical looked to be the sole contender for the Tony Awards. With director/coproducer Hal Prince, star Ben Vereen, writer Fay Kanin and a $5 million budget, "Grind" has everything money can buy. But in its present, apparently unfinished state the show has few of the things it can't. Like inspiration, sound and sense.
This dispirited musical about a grimy 1933 Chicago burlesque house peopled by white comics and black strippers is having its pre- Broadway tryout at Baltimore's Lyric Opera House. With a lot of work, there's still enough raw material for Prince's team to reshape "Grind" into a dazzler.
Perhaps they should start by writing a play. Kanin's book is an unresolved tangle of threads. Club emcee Leroy (Vereen) loves lead dancer Satin (played by the pneumatic Leilani Jones). Nothing happens till near the close of Act I. Then Kanin tosses in a mysterious drunken Irishman, who has, we are not told until much too late, accidentally blown up his wife and child while making a terrorist bomb. There are also several gratuitous and unconvincing scenes about racial violence and hooliganism, and a maudlin strand about an over-the-hill baggypants comic, which wastes the talents of vaudeville vet Stubby Kaye.
The cast makes a game attempt at bravura singing and dancing, but Larry Grossman's anemic melodies and Lester Wilson's halfhearted choreography are a shaky platform. The sole moving, melodic song is "These Eyes of Mine," a gospel number that seems to have wandered onstage from another show.
Vereen, who hasn't had a Broadway show since 1972's "Pippin," has been missed, but seems out of vocal and physical shape. Timothy Nolen impresses as the mysterious Irishman Doyle, with his poignant tenor and pale, grim face recalling scenes from Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd."
"Grind" begs, borrows and steals from a handful of recent musicals: "Sugar Babies," "Dreamgirls," "Cabaret" and "La Cage aux Folles" are among the more obvious sources. They're all mirrors of showbiz worlds -- a theme much used and abused in recent years by Broadway's powers -- but this time there's no light at the end of their tunnel vision.
We've come to expect big things from Hal Prince, and true to form, he's decked "Grind" out with lotsa flash and lotsa flesh. Clarke Dunham's colossal set steals the show but dwarfs the already diminished characters -- it's like watching an ant farm.
Dunham has constructed a meticulously detailed three-story burlesque house that revolves on three turntables, stopping in a variety of positions to reveal a proscenium stage, dingy backstage dressing rooms and offices, and the stage door alley.
Still, it's a depressing sight, all those bright lights, all that shiny machinery, grinding away in vain. With all that money and talent and hope invested in a show, couldn't someone say out loud that the emperor has no clothes? Or in this case, that the set has no show? GRIND -- At Baltimore's Lyric Opera House through March 16.