SALT LAKE CITY — Steel Pier produced by the University of Utah’s Department of Theatre, was a very enjoyable experience. The variety of dance and music with the fantastic set made for a beautiful sight throughout the entire evening. The play (written by David Thompson, with songs of John Kander and Fred Ebb) was a memorable show that I am thankful I saw.
Show closed September 24, 2017.
The show is about a 1930’s dancer, Rita, who wants to be done performing and go back home. Her husband Mick, the emcee of the steel pier dance marathon, convinces her that she can retire after one more dance competition. She has to find a partner to dance with, as hers didn’t turn up. Meanwhile, a stunt pilot, Billy, won a raffle ticket to dance with her at a previous dance marathon has come to find her and get receive his prize. In the process Billy becomes Rita’s partner and quickly learns enough dance moves to compete, despite his lack of experience. To get more publicity, Mick has the pair stage a fake wedding. Rita realizes how abusive Mick has been, and—with Billy’s help—she struggles to release herself from his manipulation. The show lasted 2 hours and 45 minutes and was engaging throughout.
The set was designed by Gage Williams, and it was huge. There were light up letters across the scrim that said “STEEL PIER,” which got my attention. The structure onstage looked like thick steel bars that curved up and over, almost like the beginning of a tunnel. On either side there were stairs leading up to an upper landing where the announcements were given. They even had a few tables and chairs for members of the audience to sit and actually be on stage to watch during the show! It made me feel like I was an extension of the audience up there. During a set change they brought on bunk beds for their resting place between dances that were detailed enough to be interesting but simple enough not to get in the way of the action.
The show was well directed and choreographed by Denny Barry. While this production lasted almost 3 hours (compared to the 2 hour Broadway version), it still flowed smoothly and I hardly noticed the time go by. The dancing was all fun and varied (a mixture of ballroom, jazz, lyrical, modern, and even a bit of ballet from the angels), and easily held my attention. I especially enjoyed the intense solo dance number performed by Rita, “Running in Place.” Barry also made great use of every inch of the set. There was a part where Billy jumps off the pier and lit up on the back wall was a view of how tall the pier actually was. As a result, his jump looked scary and the moment was emotionally effective. Another memorable moment was in Barry’s placement of dancers for the flying dream; she had the angels dancing up on the upper landing hooked to bungee chords to keep them from falling during the turbulence. Barry has done excellent work with this show, and I’m so glad I was able to see it.
Robert Scott Smith, playing Mick Hamilton, was the best actor in the cast. Smith was able to impersonate the very creepily manipulative Mick who ignored all the pain he was causing others—including himself—yet absolutely had to have control. There is even a song Mick sings called, “A Powerful Thing” about how though childhood beatings he learned he needed to always be the one in charge of any situation and is extremely proud of it. Though Smith’s character showed a lot of angry moments throughout, I didn’t tire of his performance because of how Smith built up to Mick’s last explosion at Rita when she defied him. I thought Mick was going to hit Rita in front of everyone and lose his job. I could see how he was so engrossed in his desire for power that he couldn’t consider anything else in his life, including other’s feelings.
Mikki Reeve played Rita Racine in a way that reminded me a lot of one of Sutton Foster, which was a nice treat. Reeve was able to show how her character yearned for her home she was willing to do anything, especially for Mick. Reeve was also very convincing during the song “Steel Pier” at the end when the mood was grotesquely eerie and I could see Rita almost losing her mind. Reeve also had a long moment where she had to cry and during a song, and I could feel the pain and anguish she was going through despite the physical distance between me and Reeve. Yet, one thing that I thought was odd was her singing. Reeve would switch from belt to classical whenever she went too high for too long. It worked okay, but was surprising to hear from a lead singer. While singing in a classical style, the diction was fuzzier, so it was harder to hear the words, and she was much quieter. Her counterpart, Bailey Cummings (in the role of Billy Kelly), was also so enjoyable that I could listen to his voice all night. Cummings’s singing had a very rich quality that was wonderful to hear. His acting was also good, though he wasn’t required to do too much except be kind. I also have to put a plug in for Alice Ryan who played Precious McGuire. She had such a fun control of her voice and her part required it fully. I wanted to give Ryan a standing ovation after her song, though there wasn’t time in the show for that, unfortunately. She was also good at the character progression to naive country girl to big-time showgirl.
The ensemble pulled off the dancing quite seamlessly, with only a tiny lack of synchronization from the “angels” during the first dance scene. The rest of the time, Steel Pier was riveting entertainment. I especially enjoyed the story line and seeing how connections between people can be woven through time and space to help people strengthen to overcome their obstacles. Yes, Steel Pier was definitely a night I will remember.
Steel Pier closed on September 24. For more information about future University of Utah productions, visit http://theatre.utah.edu.
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