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False Step By 'Red Shoes'
Newsday; 17th Dec 1993; Linda Winer

The Red Shoes. Musical based on the 1947 film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, with music by Jules Styne, Marcia Norman, lyrics by Norman and Paul Stryker. Directed by Stanley Donen, with choreography by Lar Lubovitch. With Margaret Illmann, Steve Barton, George De La Pena, Hugh Panaro, Leslie Browne, Tad Ingram. Sets by Heidi Landesman, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lights by Ken Billington, musical direction by Donald Pippin. Gershwin Theater, 51st Street west of Broadway. Reviewed at Tuesday's press preview.

"Why do you want to dance?," asks the impresario. "Why do you want to live?," responds the young ballerina in one of the more famous exchanges in certain circles of the postwar Western world.

To this we must now add a third question: "Why do you want to turn this movie into a Broadway musical?" On the basis of "The Red Shoes," the $8-million adaptation that opened at the Gershwin last night after months of personnel changes and last-minute fixes, unfortunately, it appears the creators don't have a clue.

This really is too bad. Just as the season could use a new musical, the dance world needs the sort of passionate new audiences ignited by the 1947 film about a talent torn apart by demands of her art and her love life. What's more, Broadway has not had a serious dance-driven show since the heyday of the so-called dansicals in the '70s. Of all the movie clones in our current misbegotten marathon of them, this one - with its powerful conflicted emotions and integrated dance scenes - would seem the most promising.

But, as the impresario Lermontov says in the film, "Even the best magician in the world cannot produce the rabbit out of a hat if there is no rabbit in the hat." Despite the ever-changing list of accredited magicians, good dancers, Lar Lubovitch's professional choreography and Heidi Landesman's pretty sets, the hat has no rabbit. Jule Styne, 87 and master of such scores as "Gypsy" and "Funny Girl," has written some of his most ambitious orchestral music for the 18-minute ballet of the title - inspired, clearly, by the rhythms and colors of early Stravinsky and perhaps a little too much "Rodeo."

But this streamlined, rearranged version - for which Marcia Norman retains program credit while all but renouncing the prosiac lyrics and book - moves the big ballet from the middle to the end. This means the bulk of the evening is spent wallowing in show-bizzy, faceless, inappropriately saccharine music. Placed alongside Tchaikovsky and Chopin, where Styne unwisely puts himself in a medley of ballet snippets, the effect, to put it as politely as possible, is not becoming.

Nor has Stanley Donen, veteran director of such movie classics as "Singin' in the Rain" and "On the Town," made his debut leap to Broadway with much energy. A replacement for Susan Schulman, Donen doesn't get much from the actors and allows too many of the big numbers, including the feeble first-act curtain song, to go to Lermontov. And Steve Barton, a late replacement for Roger Rees as the impresario, is not up to it. As anyone who saw the movie will not forget, it was gloriously cast with ballet legends in small roles and some soon-to-be stars in the big ones. The romantic and philosophical triangle had the incandescent Moira Shearer as Victoria Page, the English dancer who becomes the powerful Lermontov's protege. He is a sophisticated man who denies great dancers can love anything but dance - then, while she is falling for the young composer, reluctantly realizes he loves her, too.

The relationship was inspired, in part, by Diaghilev and Nijinsky, but also foreshadowed Balanchine and Suzanne Farrell. When the elegant, stylish Anton Walbrook played Lermontov in the film, he was a great force struggling against his heart. Barton, who originated the role of Raoul in "The Phantom of the Opera" and graduated to the phantom, has the white streak in his black hair, the spats, the accessories of a dashing international figure. Surprisingly, however, he sings like a stiff and simpers around like a lovesick puppy.

This leaves too much of the burden on Margaret Illmann, an attractive National Ballet of Canada dancer with long, expressive limbs, a strong spikey jump, little singing voice and slightly more stage personality. Victoria is supposed to be fighting for control of her soul, but this one doesn't have all that much to lose. Hugh Panaro plays Julian, the composer who takes her away from the dance, with a Liverpudlian accent - a class thing? - and a strangely star-struck boyishness.

The most enjoyable moments come from George De La Pena, in the relatively small, but cleverly expanded, role of Grisha, the Russian ballet master, played by Leonide Massine in the film. Pena, a former ABT dancer who was in "On Your Toes," can sing, dance and act, a combination one would expect to have been a requirement for this show. His Grisha has an authenticity. He can be tough on the dancers, even cruel at times. Leslie Browne, also from ABT and "The Turning Point," has little to do as the Russian ballerina forced to leave the company early, but, like Pena, Browne obviously gets the jokes.

It's always a kick to watch dancers in class and and these scenes, with an especially muscular male contingent, are no exception. But having Victoria improvise her audition is ludicrous and reinforces the notion that dancers just make up the steps as they go along. Lubovitch gives us quotes from "Swan Lake," "Les Sylphides," "Coppelia," a bit of the Rose Adagio, a snatch of "Don Quixote."

His "Red Shoes" ballet, in which the ballerina dances herself to death, is effective, but closer to a Russian folky "Petrouchka" - with Wilis in red toe shoes? - than the movie's dreamy romanticism. And who's idea was it to have a flying angel? In this season? Of course, as Lermontov said in the film, "It's much more disheartening to have to steal than to the stolen from." Rent the movie.

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