Friday, July 26, 2013

'Castle Walk:' An Intriguing Work-In-Progress That Has Much Going For It

 'Castle Walk' Cast Members

When attending any of the 250 performances that make up the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF), it is important to bear in mind the mission of the annual three-week summer marathon of quickly assembled productions:  “[to] discover, nurture, and promote promising musical theatre artists and producers at all stages of development...”  

Another way to put it is, don’t go to NYMF events unless you are prepared to see works-in-progress with sketchy production values and under-rehearsed performances. If you accept this likelihood, you may find yourself quite caught up in the excitement of discovering something very special indeed.  

So, let’s talk about one of the shows I think has “good bones”, but which still needs more work. That would be Castle Walk, a musical that deconstructs events surrounding the making of a 1930s Hollywood biopic about the renowned husband-and-wife ballroom dance team of Vernon and Irene Castle.

The biopic in question is real.  It went by the informative if uninspired title The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, and it starred the very popular and successful movie musical team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. 

This much is known. Irene Castle, acting as technical advisor, was on the set during the time of the filming in 1939. She was then in her mid-40s and had been without Vernon since his death in a plane crash some 20 years earlier.  It generally has been reported that she was difficult to work with, and that she fussed over every element of the production.

In developing the musical, Richard Stafford, who directed and choreographed the show and who is credited with coming up with the concept, and Milton Granger, who wrote the book, music and lyrics (with additional materials by Jere Lee Hodgin) have  sought to fill in the blanks by conjecturing on what it might have been like for Irene to watch a version of her life unfolding in the Hollywood studio.  

The creative team shows its strong suit in fleshing out this central component of the show. Irene, as she is portrayed by Lynne Wintersteller (both tough and vulnerable), wants the film to serve as a permanent memorial to her late husband, and she expects everything in it to perfectly match her memories of their lives together.  

It is not hard to imagine (and feel real sympathy for) how it must have felt for Irene as she wandered about the various sets, discomfited and disoriented by seeing things that were representations but not reproductions of what she knew to be true.  In this retelling, she is decidedly not mollified by the explanation offered by the film’s director, H. C. Potter (James Clow), that “It’s Hollywood; of course it’s a lie.”

It is during the second half of Castle Walk, in which Irene’s feelings are examined, that the creative team has been most successful.  A breakthrough moment in the show occurs just about midpoint, with a number called “Nothing Underfoot.”  In it, Irene—who had also been a very successful dance instructor—demonstrates to the dancers in rehearsal exactly what she wants them to do to capture the famous Castle style.  

Everything comes together in this scene.  You fully understand Irene’s desire for the film to get it right, a desire that is underscored in a later song, “Forever,” in which she frets over the fact that mistakes captured on film have a permanence that cannot be undone.  She worries that the reality leading up to the movie is being subsumed by the fiction.  

As long as the musical stays focused on its subject, everything works—from her jealousy over the hyper-fame of Astaire and (especially) Rogers, still in her 20s and at the height of her popularity; to the inner turmoil caused by the roiling up of feelings of loss and longing that she has repressed for many years;  to her indignation that her close friend and confidante, an African American man, is being portrayed by the white actor Walter Brennan in the film. This is all good stuff, and brings out the best in the songs.

But let me offer some unsolicited advice.  The problem lies more with the first half, which focuses on Irene’s flood of memories of her early years with Vernon. It is just a mash-up of the kinds of throwaway tunes that someone like Irving Berlin might have been able to pull off, but which, unfortunately don’t work too well here.  (Though there is one lovely Berlin-like number called “She Dances Like An Angel,” which is reminiscent of the master’s “The Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing.”) 

I’d say go all the way and find more Berlin tunes to pay tribute to, and present Act I without the presence of the older Irene. Or—if you need a framing device--use projected film of the real Castles or look-alikes and have them played before an audience of Hollywood types who are planning to make the biopic. Irene can be in that audience.  

I'm rooting for Castle Walk. It is just the kind of musical that NYMF is designed to showcase.  It has much going for it, and I hope the creative team will continue to develop it.

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