Irene Castle (a superb Lynne Wintersteller) was certainly a complex and fascinating woman as portrayed in the new musical CASTLE WALK as part of the New York Musical Festival’s tenth season.
As she arrives in California as “technical advisor” for the 1938 filming of “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle” starring Fred Astaire (Chris Kane) and Ginger Rogers (Lauren Sprague) she has lots of problems with the script and ideas for director H.C. Potter (an excellent James Clow) which include changing its title.
Actually she has lots of problems: with the set, with the costumes and with Miss Ginger Rogers – particularly her hair style and coloring. But the beleaguered Mr. Potter can do little to help. This is Hollywood and making a film for RKO is a question of time and money and compromise. Making money is the bottom line. So what if every detail is not correct.
But Irene is a stickler for details. As so she remembers the past. In flashbacks that are not in chronological order we see the young Irene (Stephanie Rothenberg) and Vernon (an appealing Bret Shuford) as they dance their way to stardom.
Trying to keep the memory of her husband Vernon alive (he was killed in 1918 in a war related accident) at the height of their fame as international ballroom dancers Irene wants the truth to be told on screen including the fact that her best friend Walter Ash (Wayne W. Pretlow) was a Negro and not the white Walter Brennan who has been cast to portray him. Facts, facts and more facts are delivered in this almost two hour musical without an intermission that includes some delightful musical numbers and staging.
Although married forever to the memory of Vernon she remarried and divorced twice and was an animal rights activist and quite annoying. So much so that she drives the director to sing about “Pills” – funny but not of the same tone as the rest of the show.
Somehow, however, it just doesn’t gel. Milton Granger is credited with book, music and lyrics. He is most successful with the period tunes. They are romantic and lend themselves to the gliding choreography of Richard Stafford who also directed on a bare stage with six chairs and perfect projections on three large frames from a film reel by Gertjan Houben). Nice touch.
The weakest aspect of the production is the structure of the book that can easily be remedied by the talented Mr. Granger. The strongest aspect is the casting of the wondrous, charming and elegant Miss Wintersteller as Irene. She holds the show together with her fine acting, singing and dancing – making what could have been a harridan, hell on wheels advisor into a touching and graceful pleasure to watch performance.
Costumes by Loren Shaw are excellent. As mentioned the dancing is graceful and memorable – as it should be and CASTLE WALK spiked my interest enough to make me want to see the RKO film.
www.nymf.org Photos: Matthew Murphy
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