`Red Shoes' Needs More Polish

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE RED SHOES. Directed by Stanley Donen. Music by Jule Styne. Lyrics by Marsha Norman and Paul Stryker, book by Marsha Norman. The Gershwin Theatre.

`THE Red Shoes'' has finally arrived on Broadway after six weeks of previews, enough firings and replacements for wags to dub it ``The Pink Slips,'' and one of its key creative principals working under a pseudonym.

These are never good signs, and it would be a pleasure to report that the show, based on the 1948 Powell/Pressburger film classic, has pulled it all together and risen above its travails to a triumphant opening. Such is not the case.

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But it is not a disaster, either. While there is nothing terribly wrong with ``The Red Shoes,'' there is simply nothing wonderful about it. This lavish musical adaptation never rises as high as its dancing heroine.

The show has music by Jule Styne, responsible for some of the greatest musicals ever (``Gentleman Prefer Blondes,'' ``Gypsy,'' ``Bells are Ringing,'' ``Funny Girl''); a book by Marsha Norman (``Secret Garden''); and lyrics by Norman and Bob Merrill (credited as ``Paul Stryker''). The director is Stanley Donen, who has directed a few films in his time, including ``Royal Wedding,'' ``Singin' in the Rain,'' and ``Funny Face.'' Clearly, a lack of talent was not the problem here.

The plot concerns the rise of Victoria Page (Margaret Illmann) to prima ballerina, as she is torn between her love for composer Julian Craster (Hugh Panaro), who wishes her to give up her career, and the company's tyrannical impresario, Boris Lermontov (Steve Barton), who insists on her abstinence from anything other than dancing and who may be in love with her himself.

Designating Victoria as the heir apparent to tempermental star Irina Boronskaya (Leslie Browne), he taps her to appear in his new ballet, ``The Red Shoes,'' with music by Julian.

The last 20 minutes of the musical are devoted to the ballet itself (a rather dreary affair, with choreography by Lar Lubovitch), and Victoria's triumph in the role that is soon followed by tragedy.

This melodrama had a hypnotic urgency in the film, but the stage version remains flat and uninvolving.

Cardboard characterizations are only occasionally given comic relief in the form of Grisha Ljubov (George De La Pena), the corp's relentless taskmaster, who manages to come up with an appropriate insult for every occasion.

The material was probably doomed from the start, and Styne's score, though pleasant and melodic, is simply not strong enough to lift the show to what it needs to be. The performances, too, are uneven; Steve Barton (a last-minute replacement for Roger Rees) and Hugh Panaro are never truly compelling as the men in Victoria's life.

On the other hand, Margaret Illmann, a former star of the National Ballet of Canada, is a gorgeous dancer and gives a star-making performance.

The lavish physical production, with scenery by Heidi Landesman, is also spectacular.

The strongest element of the show is the dancing. It is the best to be seen on Broadway - but it is also not as good as one might see any night at the New York City Ballet. Doubtless, creators of ``The Red Shoes'' were hoping that the show would lure fans of both musical theater and dance to the huge Gershwin Theatre, but they will probably end up attracting neither.

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