There they are: Chita Rivera, that smashing actress-dancer at full tilt in a tailored daytime dress, and Liza Minnelli, that exultant singing actress, in a hippie outfit. Smack in the middle of a cavernous, imposingly dilapidated skating arena about to be leveled by a demolition crew. And smack in the middle of a tortuous Terrence McNally musical book entitled "The Rink," which opened last night at the Beck.
They're a terrific pair, these talented women, and they've been handed a nice assortment of numbers by John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics), an outstandingly professional team of songwriters who go for the throat - and I don't mean that disparagingly, for Verdi, among others, was a master at it. When Rivera is uncoiling and whipping those limber and shapely legs about, and Minelli is letting that lusty voice ride high when she isn't simply being terribly appealing in an almost waiflike role, or when both are cutting up together, "The Rink" is superior entertainment. And even when their six androgynous male supporters - perhaps inspired by "La Cage aux Folles," these gents handle all the female parts, except for a tyke who appears briefly at the start and finish - step out and sing out in such a catchy Kander-and-Ebb piece as "After All These Years," fun is in the air.
But there's a story, a remarkably circuitous one whose realistic scenes intermingle with phantom ones somewhat in the manner of Sondheim's "Follies," though less eerily and, unfortunately, less imaginatively. Angel (Minnelli) is a '60s flower child come home to roost in the '70s only to find that the widowed (there's a twist there, too) mother, Anna Antonelli (Rivera), has sold the rink, one of the last remaining attractions in a once-bustling East Coast amusement park, to some Boston developers.
There's really no point in bogging you down in this Little Girl Blue story to the extent that I was, except to state that things come out right in the end (the end of a single day, despite all the ghostly reminiscences as well as the immediate complications) for Anna, Angel, Angel's pretty pre-pubescent daughter (surprise!) and even Angel's errant daddy, Dino, presumed dead but actually the happy father of three (surprise! surprise!) out in California, where he has remarried, presumably under an assumed name.
Anna and Angel are a coarse but lovable pair, their street talk extending to the lyrics, probably as part of a joint attempt by McNally and Ebb to lend verisimilitude to this slice of lower-middle-class life in grungily exotic surroundings. The songs are there - probably the best of them is the Anna-Angel duet, "The Apple Doesn't Fall," that opens the second half, a number cut from the same cloth out of which the team fashioned that "Woman of the Year" next-to-closing show-stopper "The Grass Is Greener"; the bright choreography by Graciela Daniele is there; Peter Larkin's almost awesomely realistic and ultimately vanishing set is there; Theoni V. Aldredge's apt costumes and Marc B. Weiss' versatile and excellently atmospheric lighting are there; A.J. Antoon's incisive direction is there, and the spirited cast is certainly there - yet the entire narrative and emotional fabric of "The Rink" keeps coming apart, to be hastily stitched together with a song, dance or new story development. The many elements that must somehow be magically joined to make a satisfying musical never seem to combine successfully.
In addition to the two brilliant stars, there is effective work by Scott Holmes as the slippery, two-timing, fast-talking husband and father; by Ronn Carroll as the stolid Italian grandfather, and by Jason Alexander as the proprietor of an adjoining ride who has adored Anna since she was a maiden and who, having also sold out, is about to win her and whisk her off to Rome for a holiday.
The evening ends with Anna, Angel, and Angel's child, hands linked and one behind the other, mounting in silhouette the skeleton of the dismantled rink toward happiness.
But all those songs ("Wallflower," "We Can Make It," and "Marry Me" are other neatly-crafted ones), and all that talent - for what? A mishmash.
Put bluntly, if obliquely, the new musical The Rink, which opened at the Martin Beck Theater last night, is not quite as good as it should have been, but certainly not as bad as it could have been.
Both the should and the could in this equation are supplied by its two remarkable stars, Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli, who are as iridescent as twin catherine wheels in a sable night, as gutsy as a prizefight and as honest as the show is long.
They are at their twin peaks - but spending too much of their time shouting down to the show to come up and meet them. It never quite does.
The Rink is ambitious, and seems to promise th expectation of grandeur. I think I was even expecting it to be on ice. It is a roller rink - a very seedy roller rink, in an even more seedy amusement park somewhere on the Atlantic seaboard, where casinos haven't reached and the boardwalk has lapsed into tiny decay. It is a bitter playground for muggers.
The rink, like the entire ghostland of an amusement park, is due for destruction - high-rise condos will soar where the Ferris wheel once held sway.
Anna (Miss Rivera) is the rink's owner - or at least co-owner with her long-absent daughter - and she has sold it for demolition, and even now a six-pack wreckers crew is moving in to start work.
But the daughter Angel (Miss Minnelli) has suddenly decided to return from California. She misses the colored lights of the fairground, and the magic of a world that, unbeknown to her, has vanished.
The musical is not about the rink - the rink, its possessions and its future, are simply the arena where a mother and daughter examine their past, and perhaps learn to talk to one another after these years of hurt and dangerous silence.
As the daughter says: "We scream, we yell, we shout, we hate - we don't talk." What can they talk about? The past and its lies, and deceptions. The dead father who wasn't dead, the infidelities, the little girl who felt unlovely and unloved, the mother who felt abandoned, and the church that did little to nurture or comfort either of them.
A serious musical then. Terrence McNally's book is lean and hard even in its sentimentality. It is a musical where dreams twist into nightmares, where sex, not love, is omnipresent, and a joking song about the good old days can disconcertingly erupt into a gang rape.
An innovative musical, then. Yes - McNally uses a very fluid time warp for his story, and all the characters, apart from the mother, daughter and the daughter as a child, are played, irrespective of gender, by the wrecker's crew. The sextet even get to do a roller-skating ballet.
The music and lyrics are by John Kander and Fred Ebb, who, to say the least, know what they are doing, and are here doing it for friends. Kander's music has some of the cynical nostalgia of their Cabaret, and the melodiousness of Zorba or Woman of the Year. Ebb's lyrics flow, twisting clever tongues with outrageous aptness.
And the staging - this, by A.J. Antoon - seems solemn, solid and impeccable, with a wonderful setting by Peter Larkin of ornate, paint-encrusted shabbiness, with its vaulting ironwork towering upward, its soda fountain and old organ embellishing the rink itself, and a wonderful final transformation for a split-second apotheosis.
You see everything is there. Or, almost.
The multi-purpose chorus is a cute dramatic idea - but does it actually work on stage? Perhaps not. Certainly it makes the show seem intimate while the sweep of the music is surely show-biz expansive.
Similarly the crisply sophisticated lyrics, bristling with wit, are out of kilter with the more savage, perhaps deeper humors of the book, seeming inadvertently to provide a flippant commentary to real, if funny, pain.
Even the decrepit grandeur of the setting seems wraithlike in the musical's bounce, and yet also, with all that bounce, the very musical itself misses that authentic belting surge it seeks - with its rich-voiced singers - to evoke. It even lacks that final clinching clutch around the heartstrings, what Broadway fondly calls "the 11 o'clock number."
So the sum of the parts does not add up to the sum of the whole, and some of the whole adds up to less than that. What to do - put it all on ice, bring out new skates, and go back to the workshop with, say, an Alpine village?
No. The Rink disappoints at the high level it aims at, yet provides much pleasure, as well as real emotion, on the lower slopes. The show has not been either well envisaged or, in final concept well produced - but within those limitations there is much to enjoy, including, most memorably, Rivera and Minnelli.
These two performances will live in Broadway legend, transcending and perhaps obliterating the memory of the musical they served.
Miss Minnelli, cuddly and vulnerable, moist-eyed and hot-voiced, tough as calico and yet as soft as candy floss and as corny as popcorn, is sublime.
Not least in the way she plays to the great Miss Rivera, here at the top of her magical bent, whose voice expresses the music of her heart, and whose acting is of that same piece.
They are quite a team. Worth skating for.
When Chita Rivera steps down front to put over her first John Kander-Fred Ebb song in ''The Rink,'' you feel a surge of relief. Liberated from the draconic attire of ''Merlin'' and looking in every way terrific, Miss Rivera is in command of a Broadway stage for the first time since her 1975 appearance in the Kander-Ebb ''Chicago.'' And if her song is more likable than inspired, Miss Rivera raises it higher: Her voice is firm and sparky; her crinkly smile, often forced in recent years, is spontaneous; her taut dancer's body is in perfect concord with the music's beat.
Miss Rivera has been a powerhouse performer for roughly three decades, and it's a pleasure to see that power unleashed again, its force undiminished by time. As ''The Rink'' lurches forward, the star continues to delight - whether she's leaping and high kicking in a jitterbug or brassily harmonizing with her co-star, Liza Minnelli. Indeed, Miss Rivera is a performer you could watch forever - but, in the end, even she's not enough to save ''The Rink.'' The show's running time is forever and a day.
The turgid, sour new musical at the Martin Beck is a curious affair. As staged by A. J. Antoon, much of it is as polished as Miss Rivera's skills. The small supporting cast is capable, and Mr. Kander's melodies, orchestrated with panache by Michael Gibson, can linger in the ear. But no glossy Broadway professionalism can mask the work's phony, at times mean-spirited content - or give credence to its empty pretensions. It's impossible to care about anything on stage except Miss Rivera - and we even lose some interest in her, once she passes through a gratuitous dance number simulating a gang rape.
The idea behind the show - which often seems a forced hybrid of ''Follies,'' John Guare's screenplay for ''Atlantic City'' and a previous Kander-Ebb musical, ''The Happy Time'' - was to create a Proustian- flavored reunion between a long-estranged mother and her grown-up daughter. The acutely symbolic setting, designed with ingenuity and affection by Peter Larkin, is a decaying roller rink along the boardwalk of a tattered Eastern seaboard resort. Anna (Miss Rivera), the rink's proprietor, has sold the old joint. But just as the wreckers arrive, her daughter, Angel (Miss Minnelli), returns from a seven-year California exile to search for roots and settle old scores.
What ensues in Terrence McNally's book is a series of repetitious present- day squabbles, punctuated by flashbacks. Mr. McNally is a smart and witty playwright, but you'd never know it from this synthetic effort. His dialogue is banal, and his characters are ciphers. Anna is merely a spunky widow; Angel is a caricatured 1960's dropout defined by scruffy clothes. ''The Rink'' is static because nothing specific or compelling is at stake for the two women. Their only real conflict is a generalized, all-purpose logjam: they've never learned how to say ''I love you.''
To inflate the show, Mr. McNally pays lip service to sociological themes (such as urban decay) and loads the memory segments with lurid, melodramatic revelations that might well constitute a parody of William Inge. We learn that Anna's late husband was an alcoholic womanizer; we also hear of an illegitimate birth, Anna's postmarital promiscuity and a fatal car crash. Though none of these soap-operatic incidents adds depth to Angel and Anna, they and that rape do reinforce the evening's distasteful tone. Almost every male character is a crude sexual adventurer, and both women are presented as reformed ''tramps.''
Mr. McNally paints himself into so many corners that he must resolve the mother-daughter relationship by fiat. Angel and Anna end up on terms of endearment thanks to another plot trick and several lines of ''I'm O.K. - You're O.K.'' psychobabble. Mr. McNally also attempts to pander to the audience in a climactic flashback: to free the daughter from her past, he presents antiwar protesters of Angel's generation as bubbleheads who didn't even know where Southeast Asia was. That cynical judgment is then embroidered in Miss Minnelli's final song - in which Mr. Ebb's lyrics characterize the idealists of an entire decade as ineffectual Frisbee throwers and draft-card burners. Somehow this holier-than-thou indictment of the Vietnam War era lacks authority when couched in trivial terms befitting Mr. Ebb's last show, ''Woman of the Year.''
Mr. Kander's discordant music for that final song sounds like ''Sweeney Todd'' played at the wrong speed, as does the music for an equally preposterous number in which Miss Rivera angrily renounces her belief in God. When he sticks to nostalgic, upbeat, show-biz songs - most of which provide a heavily ironic counterpoint to the action - the composer writes with his usual flair. The best number, though formulaic, is the first: a hurdy-gurdy evocation of memory, well sung by Miss Minnelli and dreamily enlivened by Marc B. Weiss's atmospheric lighting effects. The title song, though otherwise pointless, perks up Act II by allowing the six-man chorus to perform some enjoyable Graciele Daniele choreography on roller skates.
The talented chorus men play all the male roles in the show - and, for no valid reason, some of the women. Jason Alexander comes off best, as Anna's one well-meaning suitor. Until the end - when she opens up the floodgates of her tear ducts - Miss Minnelli is convincing in the thankless role of the unkempt daughter. But in ''The Rink,'' it's only Miss Rivera who spins.