11/09/2014 01:22 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2015

First Nighter: 'The Band Wagon' Is Worth Jumping on

The list of delightful ingredients in the Encores! Series revival of The Band Wagon with its Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz score and--when it bowed in 1931--its Dietz-George S. Kaufman libretto is so long that not only is it pleasing the crowds attending at City Center, but it has the usual show-biz-insider suspects talking about a transfer for a longer Broadway run.

Without question, the most prominent come-on is that a score alternately playful and sophisticated is thrillingly available. Was there ever a more philosophically probing song than "Dancing in the Dark" composed for The Great White Way? Perhaps, but at he moment I can't think what it is?

By mood-lightening contrast there's "A Shine on Your Shoes," and the list goes on to include the hilarious "Triplets' and the soul-searching "By Myself." Let's leave it at: There isn't a clinker in the roster of first-class material, culled not only from the original revue but, possibly more cogently, from the 1953 MGM Fred Astaire-Cyd Charisse-Nanette Fabray-Oscar Levant-Jack Buchanan film--Astaire the lone 1931 holdover (not sister Adele) and Comden and Green following up their 1952 Singing in the Rain screenplay.

Doing his level-best to give the rich material its due and, for the most part, succeeding is guest conductor Todd Ellison, decorating the air with his baton in front of a 12-person(!) orchestra. (Why so small an aggregate for music that would benefit from more flourish, I'd like to know.)

Further distinguishing the fun-filled evening is director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall, who--if you recall her Kiss Me, Kate revival--relishes the chance to give a tune-up (pun intended) to tuners from an earlier age. Not only does she keep the numbers busily percolating. she also grabs the chance to send up modern dance in a couple of sequences centered on an arrogant choreographer who looks down on the B'way stage. And her dancers couldn't be more eager and willing to go for it.

Marshall's cast comes through as if waving victory flags. Where to start? How about with Tracy Ullman, not seen in these parts for several years and more than making up for the absence as Lily Martin, one-half of the show-within-a-show writing team that The Band Wagon is about?

Ullman sings and slings the zingers with the authority she's always had. She may be at her very best when presenting in a long piece the shape of the show Lily and hubby Lester Martin have concocted, which is reminiscent of the sort of thing Comden and Green did with their two-person outing, A Party With Comden and Green. The versatile Michael McKean (don't forget he was Gloucester in a recent King Lear at the Public) is Lester, and on a par with Ullman every step of the way.

Several times before final fade-out, Tony (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) Sheldon solidly walks off with scenes. He's Jeffrey Cordova, the actor-producer behind the bound-for-Broadway show-within-a-show having trouble on the road. Much of the time he's sending up performers' ultra-suavity, but when he gets to "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan," he's irresistibly, silkily suave.

Laura Osnes, who bowed on Broadway after winning the You're the One That I Want television competition for the Grease revival, has certainly proved to be the one whom savvy producers want. She shows up everywhere. Now she's Gabrielle Gerard, a newcomer chosen as a leading lady because she's hoity-toity choreographer Paul Byrd's girlfriend. There's a reason for Osnes's ubiquity--talent and beauty, all on display. Michael Berresse is her (temporary) inamorato, and is appealingly slick at playing the show's heavy.

Brian Stokes Mitchell is Tony Hunter, a leading man down on his Hollywood luck and back on Broadway to revive his former glory. In the enterprise geared for his comeback, he's meant to be a shoeshine boy trying to better himself. (Am I the only one who finds the casting somewhat awkward?) Stokes Mitchell, the leading man in the show-within-a-show Kiss Me, Kate, has a knack for transmitting how much fun he's having. And that voice! His "By Myself" is outstanding.

Don Stephenson as Jeffrey Cordova's right-hand man (and more) gives his always-welcome sly performance, and the rest of the cast, many of the dancers deft at comedy, is an impeccable complement.

Now it's time to talk about the libretto, which Douglas Carter Beane has reworked from the movie rather than from, it seems, the revue Comden and Green reworked from Kaufman and Dietz. By the way, Beane, who says he's been wanting to get The Band Wagon back on stage for some time, has become a go-to guy for this sort of thing. Whatever the deficiencies in this version, it's a big step up from what he did for Broadway's current Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella and Die Fledermaus at the Met.

And yes, along with any number of truly funny wisecracks strewn like rose petals, there are deficiencies. There are enough to suggest that before anybody carts this cast, set consultant Derek Lane's tasty but minimal notions and costume consultant William Ivey Long's smack-on '50s wardrobe anywhere, work must be done.

Seemingly disdainful of the laundering done to Schwartz's more cynical lyrics and some of the testier character quirks Kaufman and Dietz accorded whatever characters there were in the revue, Beane has constructed a storyline noticeably different from the Comden-Green script and maybe even more reflective of collaborators on a musical.

Whereas in the Astaire flick, directed by Vincente Minnelli, the principal characters were all palsy-walsy, those here are experiencing disturbing contretemps. Hunter and the Martins have a history. Tony and Lily were once romantically involved. Lester, an imbiber, believes they still are--with alienating consequences.

But as the situation intensifies, the problem is that Beane initially depicts the characters as simply nasty. The conflicts he creates don't go as far as he might take them. In other words, he hints at a fully-dimensional libretto he has yet to realize.

But what if he does realize it? Is The Band Wagon a smart bet for a crosstown move? Producers these days looking for marquee value may think The Band Wagon has it, but are they correct? Right now, a top-notch On the Town (hello again, Comden and Green) is on view at the Lyric--a production than which you wouldn't want anything better--and it's not doing the business it should. The Band Wagon is an even lesser marquee name.

Oh, well, what's available at City Center is hot. It's got those Schwartz-Dietz songs--not all the same choice items from the movie, which aren't the same choice items from the revue--but it's got 'em. So go get 'em.