Review: Let's Dance stumbles at the Winter Garden

New jukebox musical set in the early 1960s reminds you of other, better shows

Review: Let's Dance stumbles at the Winter Garden
Photo by Ritche Perez

LET'S DANCE! THE MUSICAL original concept and story by Walter Schroeder, book by Victoria Wells-Smith, directed by Keith Pike (Terra Bruce Productions). Runs to August 20 at the Winter Garden Theatre (189 Yonge). $38-$90. See info here. Rating: ✭✭

✅ = Critic's pick / ✭✭✭✭✭ = outstanding, among best of the year / ✭✭✭✭ = excellent / ✭✭✭ = recommended / ✭✭ or ✭ = didn't work for me

We don't have to wait for what AI-generated theatre might look like; it's already here in the form of Let's Dance! The Musical.

Although a book writer (Victoria Wells-Smith), original concept and story person (Walter Schroeder) and even dramaturges are credited in the programme for the new show – which features tunes from the early 1960s – there's a soulless, empty feel to it, as if its creators had fed shows like Grease, Hairspray and a couple of episodes of Fame into ChatGPT and decided to stage the awkward results.

It's 1963, and the struggling opera singer Marco Del Monte (Luciano Decicco) has left California to return to Manhattan's Northumberland High, the "fine arts prep school" where he graduated from years before.

He's there to oversee the music program to help get students into prestigious schools like Juilliard, Yale and Eastman, where they'll eventually graduate to perform in orchestras, opera and dance companies. Under the watchful eye of the school's Principal Sherman (Michele Shuster), Marco is preparing an end-of-year showcase for the students featuring music from the 1800s.

But the kids, most of whom would rather twist and shout to present-day music than waltz to Strauss II, have other plans. And once dance teacher Sophia Leggiero (Mikayla Stradiotto) discovers the school is about to close down because of a fickle patron's withdrawn funding, all of them decide to tweak the showcase's programme to reflect the times. They're gonna go out with a rock 'n' roll bang.

Their only problem? They have to keep their rehearsals a secret from Principal Sherman and her lackey, John (Dylan Corscadden).

That's the basic plot, with a few detours to superficially explore things like unfaithful boyfriends and the challenges of being a gifted working-class kid (Alex Patycki, delivering one of the subtler and more effective performances) among wealthier students.

Much of this would have been watchable had more care been given to the script, characters and direction. To single out one obvious flaw: Keith Pike's direction of Shuster's blustery, over-the-top performance as the principal diminishes the seriousness of her threat. Even her outfits (costumes are by Graham McMonagle) feel too flashy to suggest her conservative tastes.

Likewise, Marco (played well enough by Decicco) lacks any dimension; apart from one flashback to an unsuccessful audition, we don't get any insight into his own artistic dreams. He seems to be swayed pretty quickly by the current era's music and moves. And if he wanted to pursue serious music, what was he doing in California in the first place, except to provide the show with its first hit song, "It Never Rains in Southern California"?

(Another point: one of the first scenes shows how Marco's sister is a student at the school, which we think is going to be important. But they barely say another word to each other after that initial interaction.)

The creators seem more concerned with shoe-horning in songs from the era** – among them the titular "Let's Dance," "House of the Rising Sun" and "Do You Want to Dance" – than establishing any sense of time or place.

(** and some songs that are NOT from the era, including Frank Mills's 1974 ditty "Music Box Dancer," made popular in the late 70s)

There's no mention of JFK's era-defining assassination that year; and neither is there any mention of nuclear paranoia or the growing civil unrest in the American South.

And even though the bulk of the show is set in New York City, you wouldn't know that from looking at Joshua Quinlan's set, which alternates between brick walls and columns and banks of lockers, resembling a medium-security penitentiary rather than a prestigious east coast school. Couldn't a designer have at least projected a Manhattan skyline onto a wall?

Mikayla Stradiotto (front) and cast dance up a storm. Photo by Ritche Perez

Ironically, like the musical's climactic concert – nimbly choreographed by Wells-Smith – Let's Dance! acts as a showcase for its young talents, many of them triple-threat singers, dancers and actors.

Stradiotto, Decicco, Batycki, Corscadden, Rebecca Sellars, Kenzie Drover and Timothy Harder seem full of energy and potential. Sellars, Corscadden and Batycki each nail their lively solos.

I hope they all go on to more promising projects, whether from the commercial company behind this show – the new Terra Bruce Productions, who's mounting a show called The Wild Rovers this fall – or companies with more proven track records and better taste.

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