By Geary Danihy
It’s a good thing that the Downtown Cabaret Theatre allows you to bring in the beverage of your choice, because if you opt to see “Fandance,” a production of New York Theatrical Productions that the Cabaret is currently (perhaps not wisely) hosting, you’ll need all the painkiller you can consume. Subtitled “The Legend of Sally Rand,” this misguided attempt at a musical does just about everything wrong. About the only saving grace in viewing this clunky vehicle is that it gives you a greater appreciation of “Gypsy.”
From the opening number, a “Dream Waltz,” which has a ballet dancer silhouetted against a blue-lit scrim, “Fandance” does everything it can to be meaningless. The dream sequence, which has nothing to do with Sally Rand, is followed by the “Garage Sale Cha Cha,” a slight, pedestrian number inelegantly directed by Misty Rowe, who also has the dubious honor of being the show’s playwright and choreographer as well as playing the part of the adult Sally. It is at the garage sale that Rosie (Suzy Carpenter) meets Sally, now 74 years old, and this sets the whole shebang into lurching motion.
What follows is a series of what can only be called sophomoric skits, some loosely connected, others stuck in for fill, most dealing with young Sally (a game Amber Carpenter) as she runs away from a Quaker farm to join a circus, finds fleeting fame in the movies until Talkies appear on the scene, ends up down and out in Chicago only to land a job at the Paramount Club as an exotic dancer, where she creates her famous fan dance.
Showcased at the Chicago World’s Fair, Sally again does her patented “dance” and is arrested for indecency. That’s basically the first act, which is, if nothing else, at least coherent. As for the second act, well, Sally is found not guilty of indecency, apparently fronts some girlie shows, adopts a child and…well, ends up selling memorabilia at a garage sale.
We’ve come full circle, or perhaps full oblong. If you read the playbill notes, you come to realize that the Rosie character is actually Misty Rowe’s mom…Aha!...and that the young girl who gets ballet lessons (don’t ask) is actually the young Misty, and that the girl, Dreama DePaiva, who plays the girl who gets the ballet lessons is actually Misty’s real-life daughter. Knowing all of this gives some sense to the second act, sort of. Nice if said “sense” would have been dramatized rather than ineptly hinted at.
Most of what goes on up on the stage is mundane at best, but there are moments of sheer, awesome badness, chief among them the scene when Cecil B. DeMille (Robin Field) gives Sally her stage name. Field is so over-the-top in this scene he makes Benny Hill look like Sir Laurence Olivier. There are many such moments of ham-fisted emoting or melodramatic overkill, punctuated by dance numbers that border on the artless and songs that seldom move the plot, such as it is, forward one iota. Then there are the “What the hell is happening?” moments – the “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” number in Act One (what a sad, sad, bubble); the “Dream” dance scene in Act Two.
There is, however, one bright spot in this otherwise dim production, and that is when Steve Rossi (he of Allen and Rossi fame) comes on as the MC at the Paramount Club. Rossi does some old jokes, banters with the audience and sings “Minnie the Moocher.” If there was anything else of interest happening on the stage, then Rossi’s bit would have seemed a bit stretched, but since it’s the only time in the entire two hours that a performer appears to know exactly what he is doing and why he is doing it (and doing it with a great deal of skill), Rossi’s appearance is a welcome relief.
One wonders, given Rowe’s extensive experience in show business, whether she has ever considered the structure of a musical. Not that all musicals must adhere to some formula, but one questions why she disdained having some kind of “bring ‘em back to their seats” number at the end of Act One, which actually ends with various cast members reacting indignantly to Sally’s arrest and then…curtain.
One might also ask if Rowe understands the function of the 11 o’clock number – the song near the end of the second act that showcases the star’s talents and blows away the audience (think “If He Walked Into My Life” – from “Mame”). Well, there is an 11 o’clock number in the show – sort of – it’s “So This is Love,” but it’s sung not by Sally but by a showgirl named Mary (Liz Clark Golson). Go figure.
There may well be a show – be it a musical or a drama – in Sally Rand’s life story, but unfortunately “Fandance” is not it. Perhaps because of Rowe’s emotional attachment to the story she was, in its creation, too close to the forest to see the rather desiccated trees, but whatever the reason, “Fandance” is something you want to steer clear of, unless you have masochistic tendencies.
“Fandance” runs through Sunday, April 25. For tickets or more information call 203-576-1636 or go to www.Cabtix.org.
This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.