Here’s a surprise: a show about casting the dance company of a Broadway musical in 1975, a dozen and a half hopefuls, yet nary a legwarmer in sight. There is a modest amount of Spandex, but in general the more conservative elements of both that period and this have been combined; most of the guys could have walked in off the street (then or now) in what they’re wearing onstage.
Michael Bennett’s show bears more than a little resemblance to another 1970s phenomenon: the disaster movie. It has the same kind of portmanteau structure, assiduously bestowing a back-story on virtually every one of the auditionees. This pervades even Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban’s songs, which are intricately and inextricably bound into the surrounding script with the twin exceptions of “One” and “What I Did for Love”. The latter of these is palpably conceived as a break-out number, perfunctorily cued in late in Act Two as a kind of pre-finale; cleverly, though, we are shown “One” being constructed as a routine step by step, which has the effect of deconstructing our sense of it.
James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante’s book, however, shares that disaster-movie trait of simply having too much story. When everyone is a viewpoint character, we end up focusing nowhere in particular; and with so many tales to interweave, some are bound to clunk, which unfortunately includes the anguished private exchange between the director and his ex (played by Scarlett Strallen).
In some ways, the show needs precisely what it has gone out of its way to eschew: the objectifying gaze. If we were to begin by considering these hopefuls, in permissive ’70s fashion, as little more than well-choreographed pieces of meat, their emergence as individuals would be that much more pronounced. As it is, caring too much about them from the beginning means that we do not care enough at the end, two interval-less hours later, because neither they nor we have been afforded a significant journey. Odd as it may sound for the biggest theatre in the West End, and a production directed by original co-choreographer Bob Avian, this feels in Palladium terms rather like a filler until the next real singular sensation comes along.