The odd things about "The Red Shoes" is that it wasn't done as a stage musical before Michael Powell made his 1948 film.
Part backstage drama, part fairy tale, the story of a ballerina torn between two obsessive male egos mixes passion and artifice in a way that seems more natural to the theater.
If the current stage version of "The Red Shoes" seems a pallid retelling of the memorable film, it's because theater nowadays is mistrustful of artifice and incapable of passion. More important, this is a story that requires size, another commodity currently in short supply.
The essential problems are both conceptual and stylistic. If the story that surrounds and parallels the ballet "The Red Shoes" is going to work, it must have characters who have the mythical stature of those in Hans Christian Andersen's story.
The ballet impresario Boris Lermontov must be as mesmerizing and dark as a fairy-tale sorcerer, if not the fictional Svengali or the esthetic sorcerer Diaghilev. In Marsha Norman's storytelling, Lermontov is merely petulant and cruel, an egotistical despot who gives no clue as to why anyone would swear either artistic or emotional fealty to him.
Steve Barton plays the role with strength. But neither the dialogue nor the score ever allow the character to command the stage. Similarly, Victoria Page - the young dancer who both benefits and suffers from Lermontov's ability to create and destroy stars - must have the waiflike vulnerability of fairy tale heroines who are invariably pawns of destiny, despendent on fairy godmothers or other forms of unexpected magic to make their way in the world. Margaret Illmann, who is a marvelous dancer, projects a steeliness that suggests she is not in need of any supernatural assistance. The least fleshed-out of the pivotal trio is Page's composer-lover, though Hugh Panaro plays the part with great intensity.
The only character who has any color is the bitchy Russian choreographer Grisha, played with admirable panache by George De La Pena.
Virtually the only time "The Red Shoes" comes to life is when its characters dance. Lar Lubovitch's choreography has a vitality and verve that are absent from the rest of the proceedings.
Here, Illmann's footwork is all that matters - and it is dazzling, particularly in a scene where she executes some virtuosic steps and then asks for a chance to do them faster.
The high point of the evening is the ballet "The Red Shoes." This is a marvelous piece of terpsichorean storytelling, full of zesty steps and even a nifty special effect - the shoes, unpeopled, dance their way across the stage.
The 15-minute ballet is also the high point of Jule Styne's score. It has a pungency and sophistication that's missing from most of the songs, which project neither the mood of the '20s, when the show is set, nor the tempestuous emotions the story describes. The lyrics, attributed to Marsha Norman and Paul Stryker, are mostly flat.
Visually, the show is enchanting. Heidi Landesman's sets capture the romance of the ballet world as well as the elegance of '20s London beautifully. She also manages to frame the sprawling stage of the Gershwin so that it does not dwarf the action. Her set for the concluding ballet is a ravishing homage to the world of Russian ballet, splendidly lit by Ken Billington.
Stanley Donen, who assumed the direction of the show about a month ago, keeps it moving efficiently. But everything about it seems too mechanical to engage us either imaginatively or emotionally.
About 15 years ago, the late Lee Theodore founded the American Dance Machine, to re-create marvelous Broadway choreography. The institution seems to have died with its founder. Perhaps it can be resurrected to preserve both Lubovitch's choreography for "The Red Shoes" ballet and Landesman's set. Otherwise, "The Red Shoes" is forgettable.
It's been quite a year on Broadway for Cinderella and Cinderella stories. We've already had Cinderella herself in the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical of the sam name, and Eliza, that Shavian flowergirl transmogrified into the princess of "My Fair Lady."
Now comes Vicky Page, the Hans Andersen-styled little dancer who rises to ballerina and becomes the doomed heroine of "The Red Shoes."
In the Jule Styne/Marsha Norman Broadway musical version, "Shoes," which opened at the Gershwin Theater last night, Vicky not only could have danced all night but nearly has to.
The music is feebly undernourished, the book and lyrics banal and melodramatic, and the show has only the elaborately tasty scenery (surprise, surprise!) and the moderately successful choreography to commend it.
But nothing could save it.
The original 1948 Powell/Pressburger movie was a kind of classic - partly because of the landmark role it played in the burgeoning popularity of ballet.
To try to turn it into a musical was a foolish idea - the theme is now hopelessly dated and the visual style of the film, typified by the simple subtlety of Jack Cardiff's cinematography, eludes the stage show.
To be sure, Heidi Landesman's charming settings, including a Baroque false proscenium, do prove a delight.
But they cannot disguise the high-camp fakery of the story, the lack of musical underpinning (the score is at its best when it is quoting Tchaikovsky, Delibes and Chopin) and the abysmal lyrics (by book-writer Norman in collaboration with Paul Stryker) that deliver such gems as: "Now we learn what no one's known / the shoes have passions of the own."
Looking at the finished product, it appears that choreographer Lar Lubovitch had to have more control over the final staging than the director, Stanley Donen.
Even in the "Red Shoes" ballet - the longest dance sequence of its type since the Balanchine/Rodgers "Slaughter on 10th Avenue" for "On Your Toes" - Lubovitch does pretty well.
And the dancing is good. The new Vicky Page - Canadian ballerina Margaret Illmann - is certainly no Moira Shearer (star of the screen version), but she is a better dancer, and has a certain personality. She lacks passion, but almost everything and everyone in sight looks and sounds as if in need of a blood transfusion.
Steve Barton, as the Diaghilev-like ballet impresario, Lermontov, proves rather a stick (you miss the presence of an Anton Walbrook or Alan Bates). But some of the other roles, Hugh Panaro as Vicky's composer-lover, Leslie Browne as a tempermental older ballerina and, particularly, the quicksilver George de la Pena as the effervescent balletmaster, are really very well done.
No, the real fault - apart from the music, book and lyrics, is, I repeat, in the concept. I have no idea whose notion it was to turn the movie into a Broadway musical. But whoever it was couldn't have looked at the movie very closely in the first place, or, in the second, at what has happened in the world since it was originally made.
Times, taste and mores change - and to excavate the past, even if only to give it an acceptable swirl of nostalgia, requires more creative sensibility than was on show in this clumsy re-cobbling of "The Red Shoes."
For a musical that wants to celebrate the urge to dance -- a compulsion, apparently, as strong as life itself -- "The Red Shoes" is confoundingly inert. Throughout most of its two acts it lies there on the stage of the Gershwin Theater, where it opened last night, making grandiose pronouncements on the artist's calling, looking pretty and going no place slowly.
The composer Jule Styne, the playwright Marsha Norman and her co-lyricist Bob Merrill (working under the pseudonym Paul Stryker) may once have experienced a burning desire to tell the story of Victoria Page, rising ballerina, caught between the demands of love and stardom. But months of troubled rehearsals and previews, during which the original director, the leading man and two supporting players all got their walking papers, seem to have robbed the creators of their passion. Except for the toe shoes of the women in the corps de ballet, the show is pointless.
Its inspiration is the lush and schmaltzy 1948 film of the same name that made a star of Moira Shearer and has since convinced generations of impressionable young dancers that there is no greater, nobler profession than theirs. The movie is pure hokum, a teary melodrama wrapped in soggy platitudes, and the passage of time has merely heightened its intrinsic campiness. But instead of rethinking the tale from a contemporary perspective, the original aim of this project, Ms. Norman's book now hews closely to the dated film script and its hoary "dance is my religion" dialogue.
When the promising young composer Julian Craster showers Victoria with compliments, she chides him by saying, "I didn't know that people still spoke like that." The observation could be made of any of a half-dozen major characters in "The Red Shoes," from Boris Lermontov (Steve Barton), the autocratic impresario modeled after Diaghilev, to Irina Boronskaya (Leslie Browne), the petulant prima ballerina whom Victoria edges aside in her inevitable ascent.
As for Victoria, all that saves her from being a helpless babe in the terpsichorean woods is the spirited presence of Margaret Illmann, a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, who portrays the character fetchingly. Under her fresh and fragile beauty lurk hints of a wilder sexuality and a far more willful personality. They surface strikingly in the climactic title ballet, which arrives too late in the second act to turn the show's fortunes around but affords Ms. Illmann a clear shot at glory. She is the only individual connected with "The Red Shoes" for whom it is apt to do good things.
Having given us such memorable musicals as "Gypsy," "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and "Bells Are Ringing," Mr. Styne at the age of 87 needn't fear for his laurels, even if "The Red Shoes" adds nothing to them. Since "High Button Shoes" in 1947, he has been a valuable keeper of the Broadway flame, a writer of catchy, brassy show tunes that declare themselves openly and unequivocally. There are no hidden agendas in his best work: songs like "Don't Rain on My Parade," "I Gotta Crow" or "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." The world of a Russian ballet company in Europe in the 1920's, with its artistic intrigues and its tortured psyches, just isn't his natural element, and the basically upbeat tone of his current score seems at odds with the moody story.
Ms. Norman, who has a darker, more ambiguous sensibility, as her book and lyrics for "The Secret Garden" illustrated a few seasons ago, might have been of some help here. But her unsentimental intelligence is hard to detect in such simple-minded lyrics as "You must never stop/Till you reach the top/Of the sky" or in such thundering declarations as "Tonight you shall dance as you were meant to dance, as no one has ever danced before."
At some point, the soul of "The Red Shoes" appears to have been captured by cliche makers. They include, regrettably, Stanley Donen, a legendary director of film musicals ("Singin' in the Rain," "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers"), who is making his Broadway directorial debut. Although he has seen to it that the production flows smoothly and even handsomely from scene to scene, the scenes themselves are summarily staged, with little concern for the emotional dynamics that propel a live musical forward.
Mr. Barton is left the highest and driest. That's partly because Lermontov cows everybody with his tyrannical personality and, for all practical purposes, has no one to interact with. It's also because Mr. Donen has asked the actor to do precious little with Lermontov's huge reservoir of feelings other than to mask it by jutting out his chin and gazing stonily off into space. Mr. Barton is not without romantic appeal: in profile he resembles Omar Sharif; straight on, he's the Arrow Collar man for 1921. But when, in "The Reason for My Being," the first-act curtain number, he finally gets to express his festering love for Victoria Page, she's dancing tantalizingly off in the shadows, unaware and out of reach. And he's having to spout clinkers like "My mind is filled with things I'll never say, afraid she'll turn away."
Hugh Panaro, as Julian, has that tousled boy-genius look, and he delivers a lilting love song, "Be Somewhere," to an enraptured Victoria, with the earnest conviction it requires. After they marry, though, he expects his career to come first and proves a bully in his fashion. A forceful case could be made that Victoria is the plaything and victim of two driven men, but the musical is reluctant to push it. "The Red Shoes" tends to view all artists as doomed creatures, chasing relentlessly after greatness and paying a steep price for their dreams. Even such solid performers as George de la Pena (the ballet master) and Tad Ingram (Lermontov's confidant) can't humanize characters that are cardboard cutouts.
Naturally, Victoria Page is supposed to graduate to stardom before our very eyes in "The Ballet of the Red Shoes." It recounts, instructively enough, the Hans Christian Andersen tale about a peasant girl who acquires a pair of magic slippers and discovers, after she dons them, that she can't stop dancing. (Warning: Art is dangerous. Exercise caution.) As choreographed by Lar Lubovitch, with quaint Russian landscapes designed by Heidi Landesman and glowingly lighted by Ken Billington, the ballet is lively and colorful, and boasts the second-best angel on Broadway after "Angels in America." By this point, though, it has been drummed into the audience that the ground-breaking piece is guaranteed to set the dance world on its tutu, that a star like Victoria Page comes along only once in a lifetime, and that she, and no one else, can do justice to the arduous lead role. With a buildup like that, anything less than Hannibal and his elephants is probably bound to register as a letdown.
Nonetheless, the dancing is what you're likely to remember about the musical. Even when it's filler, it breaks up the deadly torpor. Elbows flap and knees knock all through "The Rag," a mock-Charleston that serves no function whatsoever in the plot but that at least energizes the guests at a birthday party for the ballet master and displays Catherine Zuber's costumes to snappy advantage. As a whole, the designers have put a professional sheen on things. Building her sets around six gigantic, movable French doors, Ms. Landesman evokes the Riviera of bygone days with a special wistfulness. In just about every other respect, however, "The Red Shoes" is a mediocre show, and nothing is more dispiriting than that.
The musical that careers off the tracks, sabotaged by the mad daring of its schemes, has its fascinations and even offers hope of a kind. The musical that breaks down on an old familiar road, as this one does, presents far fewer consolations.
Many hands cobbled "The Red Shoes," and every one of them is evident in this mishmash musical version of the beloved ballet film. Having contemporary theater and dance talents mix it up with legends from Broadway and Hollywood's golden ages came only partly by design, and it never pays off: One moment "The Red Shoes" is angst-ridden, hand-to-brow melodrama; the next it's "On Your Toes, ""Gigi" and "42nd Street" all rolled into one.
Though it has its moments -- all of which may be attributed to Margaret Illmann's spectacular dancing in the Moira Shearer role --"The Red Shoes" renders the 1948 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger movie quite literally as a pedestrian affair. It's a sure bet to join the growing roster of recent film-to-tuner flops that includes "Nick and Nora,""My Favorite Year" and "The Goodbye Girl."
Yet there was promise in the premise of matching some of the ambitious team that musicalized "The Secret Garden"-- librettist Marsha Norman, director Susan Schulman and set designer Heidi Landesman -- with veteran composer Jule Styne. Early on, however, Schulman was replaced by film director Stanley Donen; Styne brought in his "Funny Girl" collaborator Bob Merrill (working under the pseudonym Paul Stryker) for new lyrics; several principals were replaced and so, most recently, was leading man Roger Rees, who played the ballet impresario Boris Lermontov. Rees' understudy, Steve Barton, took over the role.
None of this would matter if the result were wonderful, but that isn't the case in this story of a young dancer, Victoria Page (Illmann), torn between the producer who has made her a star and the equally young composer, Julian Craster (Hugh Panaro), who writes her greatest role and falls in love with her. The movie itself isn't exactly a model of restraint. Nevertheless, it has some complexity -- in the development of Julian's and Victoria's personalities -- and subtlety, particularly in the handling of Lermontov's jealousy over his proteges' romance.
All of this is rendered in the musical with brutal obviousness. Vicky and Julian's eyes meet fatefully on their first encounter, while auditioning for Lermontov. Hired for the corps de ballet, the company breaks out into "Corps de Ballet," a standard-issue trouper ditty about the drones who provide a background for the stars. In short order, Lermontov decides to make Page a star because "there is a kind of lightning inside you." In the thuddingly mundane "Top of the Sky," he sings: "Most of us are bound to a lifetime on the ground/You won't stop 'til you reach the top of the sky." You half expect him to announce, "You're going out a corps girl, but you're coming back a star!"
"The Red Shoes" ballet is reserved for the final scene, preceded by a confrontation in Vicky's dressing room between Boris and Julian as the curtain is going up, over whom she should follow -- her Svengali, to stardom, or her lover, to a different kind of happiness. Since all of this has been spelled out before, the movie is happy to put the scene across in a flash. Onstage, it's so grotesquely blown up you wish Vicky would tell them both where to go and waltz off in search of her own Monte Carlo.
Instead, of course, she dances Lar Lubovitch's treatment of the title ballet. Here, too, an odd disjunction is in play. The stage couldn't possibly re-create the hallucinogenic journey depicted in the film. Instead, it's imbued with a heavy overlay of Russian Orthodoxy -- most of it takes place outside a church -- and given an added dollop of feminism: Danced to near-death by the devilish slippers, the fabled ballerina is joined by a contingent of similarly red-shod ghosts -- sort of the Willies AWOL from "Giselle"-- to accompany her to the Great Beyond.
Illmann has an elegant line and, while bearing no resemblance to the red-haired, burnished-looking Shearer, is quite endearing as Vicky, even if her attempts at singing are, well, attempts at singing. The other high points in the casting are George De La Pena as the demanding, mercurial ballet master, Grisha; and Leslie Browne in the smallish role of the prima ballerina Vicki replaces.
Barton, on the other hand, brings nothing more interesting to Lermontov than characterless singing and acting; he doesn't come close to conveying the essential mix of class, intimidation and charisma. I'd rather have heard Rees talking his way through the songs. Panaro's Julian is no better; he's overwrought and unconvincing either as determined composer or impassioned lover.
Heidi Landesman's beautiful designs suggest Hogarth by way of Hockney -- etched flourishes of scenes marked always by an ironic humor -- though the big dance has an added Maurice Sendak quality, with its looming church and dark-hued dreamscapes. Ken Billington's lighting also goes a long way in establishing the atmosphere throughout the 19 scenes. Catherine Zuber's costumes are nicely stylized versions of '20s clothes and dance wear.
If Donen was brought on to smooth out and speed up the action, he's been successful. Lubovitch's dances are fun enough -- is there any doubt that when the dancers gather for a birthday celebration, they'll all turn into flappers? -- and the "Red Shoes" ballet itself provides a stunning showcase for Illmann. But those lively dances are unlikely to satisfy either theatergoers anticipating a contemporary look at a favorite story or those expecting a hummable new show from a reliable old hand.