Life is a cabaret, old chum...."
Those words, from the classic musical "Cabaret," have been floating through theatergoers' minds since the new "Steel Pier" and a revival of "Candide" arrived on Broadway recently, within a few days of each other. Both have also garnered multiple Tony Award nominations - 11 for "Steel Pier" and four for "Candide." (The awards are telecast June 1 on CBS.)
Boasting musical numbers by "Cabaret" songsmiths John Kander and Fred Ebb, the lavish "Steel Pier" has an atmospheric setting - a dance hall during the Depression years - that's rather different from the Nazi nightclub where the earlier show took place.
But the new production picks up on the same metaphor as its popular predecessor. Human life is a spectacle that's both dazzling and decadent, the story tells us, and its greatest dangers may be inseparable from its most enticing attractions.
Perilous temptations were embodied by the Master of Ceremonies in "Cabaret," and in "Steel Pier" they're again associated with an aggressively alluring man. His name is Mick Hamilton, and he earns his living as a smooth-talking host of the grueling dance marathons that were fashionable during the '30s and '40s.
He's married to Rita Racine, a frequent contestant in these dance-athons, which care less about skill than the ability to keep strutting for hours every day. Rita hopes a first-place finish in the latest competition will be her ticket to a happier, more relaxing life.
Mick has other plans, though, and they don't include Rita's retirement from the marathon circuit. Next on his list is a fake wedding between her and another dancer, designed to boost her popularity and earn dishonest dollars for them both.
"Steel Pier" decks out this tawdry tale in a luxurious get-up, filling the stage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre with eye-dazzling scenery and costumes that become more garish by the minute, culminating in a wedding scene with bridesmaids wearing cellophane gowns.
The acting is comparatively tasteful but still packs plenty of energy, especially when Karen Ziemba and Debra Monk (see story, right) are in the spotlight as Rita and her crusty old mentor. David Thompson has directed the production with panache, and Susan Stroman's choreography is always lively.
What keeps "Steel Pier" from reaching the heights of a "Cabaret" is partly the flimsiness of its plot and partly its lack of compelling male characters. Mick is grimly interesting in his way, but Gregory Harrison's performance doesn't give him the sinister fascination that would make him a memorable antihero. Rita's partner for the bogus marriage, amiably played by Daniel McDonald, is equally bland as the hero.
'Candide" also has a carnivalesque mood, seeing the world as a sort of giant sideshow seething with delights and horrors so intertwined that it's hard to have one without the other.
The source of this vision is Voltaire's masterpiece of comic fiction, published in 1759. The musical had its first incarnation in the mid-1950s but didn't become a hit until 1973, when it acquired a script by Hugh Wheeler to complement Richard Wilbur's lyrics and Leonard Bernstein's music.
The new revival at the Gershwin Theatre has a fresh design, additional Stephen Sondheim lyrics, and performances by a mixture of classical singers, musical-comedy specialists, and comedians. Jim Dale, Andrea Martin, Harolyn Blackwell, and Jason Danieley are the talented top-liners.
It's as bright and colorful as any supercabaret around, but beneath its exuberance the extravaganza has a hollow ring. Voltaire's message about the pleasures and perils of life is earnest at its core. By contrast, renowned director Harold Prince - who also staged the '70s production - plays everything for easy laughs, sometimes so vulgar that even the sardonic French philosopher might have found them distasteful.
Voltaire would have disliked the finale, too. He ended his book with the suggestion that peacefully "tending one's garden" is the best route to quiet contentment in a sadly imperfect world. Missing his subtlety, Prince and company pitch garden-tending with the ferocious enthusiasm of a TV commercial gone berserk.
Life may be a cabaret, as Broadway views things. But it's surely not a shopping-network special.