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Kander & Ebb's 'Steel Pier' at the Union Theatre (Review by Fiona Lister)

Updated on November 15, 2012
4 stars for 'Steel Pier' showing at the Union Theatre, London
Sarah Galbraith (Rita Racine) and Jay Rincon (Bill Kelly) star in Kander & Ebb's 'Steel Pier' at the Union Theatre (running until 24th November 2012)
Sarah Galbraith (Rita Racine) and Jay Rincon (Bill Kelly) star in Kander & Ebb's 'Steel Pier' at the Union Theatre (running until 24th November 2012) | Source

Music and Lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb

Book by David Thompson

Conceived by Scott Ellis, Susan Stroman and David Thompson

Presented by special arrangement with Samuel French Ltd.

Broadway musicals continue to attract audiences to London’s Off-West End theatres, none more so than those by writers John Kander and Fred Ebb. Earlier this year sell-out revivals of their shows Curtains at the Landor Theatre and Flora The Red Menace (Ye Old Rose & Crown Theatre in Walthamstow, followed by another highly acclaimed run at the Landor Theatre) enthralled young and older audiences who queued for their golden tickets to see these shows for a second time. The accomplished duo is best known for their long-running musicals Cabaret and Chicago, but their lesser known works are proving just as popular.

Steel Pier débuted on Broadway on 24th April, 1997 and despite closing on 28th June, 1997 was nominated for eleven Tony Awards. The latest production at the Union Theatre is already garnering award nominations - as I write this I've just been told that Steel Pier has been nominated in six catergories in the Off West End Stage Awards: Best Female; Best Director; Best Lighting Director; Best Choreographer; Best Ensemble and Best Musical Production. Indeed, this week the show is already proving a sell-out success and Tweeters are desperate to get hold of tickets. This is undoubtedly one of the most popular must see shows in London and it's a joy to watch.

Produced by Kylie Vilcins, the latest re-imagined Steel Pier fizzes with Broadway glamour and is the latest Kander and Ebb production to dazzle London audiences. The storyline doesn’t flow as well as their other works, but with smooth direction from Paul Taylor-Mills the high energy dance routines choreographed by Richard Jones and Kella Panay (Assistant Choreographer) and the punchy musical score makes up for the plot. In fact the best part of this production is the strong choreography which maximises the small space; the twenty-one strong cast isn’t fazed by high kicks or being thrown into the air despite being in precarious close proximity to each other. Musical Director and Keys 1 - Angharad Sanders, together with the band: Benjamin Holder (Keys 2); Tammy Clarke Barrett (Reeds); Dan Brain (Bass) and Nicky Cauldfield (Percussion) have created the perfect Big Band sound, tackling Jazz and Swing with equal vivacity.

Steel Pier is like a 1930s version of 'Strictly Come Dancing' with a haunting storyline linking each scene and vignette and is set in Atlantic City during the Great Depression of 1930s America when the dance craze, particularly marathon dance sessions, swept through ballrooms and dance halls. The story follows the life of dancer Rita Racine, who becomes trapped within a world of heartache and deceit. Sarah Galbraith whose theatre credits include the role of Christine in The Phantom of the Opera in Las Vegas, stars in the role of Rita, giving a haunting performance as a lost soul who finds herself tormented by woes and ghostly imaginings. Sarah Galbraith is captivating as the troubled dancer. Like so many things in life, what Rita discovers amongst the glitter and gloss of her surroundings is duplicity and unhappiness. Entrapped in a ghastly marriage to faux golden boy and dance host Mick Hamilton (Ian Knauer), the couple keep up the pretence of not being married, a con that leaves her double-dealing husband able to rig dance competitions for prize money. Ian Knauer gives a grand performance as the dashing blade in charge of dubious marathon dance contests. Despite knowing the con trick and seeing the hardship other dancers face in their earnest quest for money, it’s hard to feel sorry for the gamely exhausted troupe, mainly because the emphasis throughout this production is poured into the artistry and élan of exotic, fiery dance routines. The big band swing sound also adds to the peppy colourful ambience. I love the idea of audience members being given bags of gold coins to throw at the impoverished starry dancers – it makes everyone feel part of the story.

Enter Steel Pier’s heartthrob, stunt pilot Bill Kelly (played by Jay Rincon) who sweeps Rita off her feet. Jay Rincon gives a charming performance as the young love-struck pilot who challenges Rita’s unhappy marriage. The couple dance until they nearly drop during the marathon contest. Bill only has eyes for Rita, but the other contestants are more concerned with winning the grand cash dance prize. I’m not going to write any more about this engaging story because I don’t want to give the unexpected ending away, but there’s a delightful twist.

Aimie Atkinson gives a show-stopping performance as dancer Shelby Stevens, the siren of the group. Dressed in a shimmering, sequined blue dress Aimie looks stunning and sings the best song of the night ‘Everybody’s Girl’.

The clever set design by David Shields with Lighting by Ben M. Rogers is kept simple but captures a twinkling funfair look (fairy lights) and the costume design by Natalie Pryce features the most lavish 1930s looks in silk and sequins.

Other credits for show-stopping performances must go to: Ian Kirton (Mr Walker); Samuel Walker (Buddy Becker); Clare Louise Connolly (Bettie Becker); Brett Shiels (Johnny Adel); Amy Anzel (Dora Foster); Rob Lines (Happy McGuire); Lisa-Anne Wood (Precious McGuire); Ben Beard (Luke Adams) and fantastic ensemble: Louisa Roberts (Mick’s Pick No 1); Natalie Douglas (Mick’s Picks No 2); Eithne Bryan (Mick’s Picks No 3); Connor MacNamara (Couple #29); Sheila Grant (Couple #29); Simon Mayhew (Couple #34); Rebecca Orwell (Couple #34); Matthew Barksby (Swing), and Francesca Roche (Swing).

The Union Theatre is a rare gem located in Union Street SE1. Lurking behind the red doors is a coffee shop behind which is a hidden doorway to the studio theatre and the long galley bar. I suggest stopping off there for tea before seeing the show.

Steel Pier is the perfect after work tonic and everyone who sees this production leaves with a spring in their step.

Running from 31st October – 24th November 2012

The Union Theatre, 204 Union Street, London, SE1 0LX
Box Office: 020 7261 9876


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