CVRep’s second production of the season is a reworked version of the short-lived Broadway musical BALLROOM.  It was Michael Bennett’s follow-up to A CHORUS LINE and was presented between that monster hit and another Michael Bennett smash, DREAMGIRLS.  Bennett himself had been quoted as saying that anything he did after A CHORUS LINE was destined to fail in comparison and he was not mistaken.

Based on the Teleplay QUEEN OF THE STARDUST BALLROOM by Jerome Kass, the original Broadway production had a book by Jerome Kass, music by Billy Goldenberg and lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman.  Part of that production’s problems came with changes in the book which took away from the core love story while giving a larger focus to the Ballroom allowing Michael Bennett to choreograph some terrific dance numbers with the regulars of the Ballroom.  The results were not the best making the musical almost feel like two separate shows alternating having the spotlight; the dancing at the Ballroom and the story of Bea Asher’s new romance and the reactions of her friends and family towards that relationship.

Under the direction of Ron Celona, along with the original composer and lyricists, some songs which had been discarded from the original have replaced others from the show and 3 new songs have been written for this production as well.  There have also been alterations to the original script in order to try and blend the story outside of the ballroom with the story inside the ballroom.  For the most part the two halves have been smoothed together to feel much more integrated and have returned the focus to where it should be; on Bea, her new boyfriend and her family.  This integration did come at some cost but more on that a bit later.

The story centers on Bea Asher (Melodie Wolford) who lost her husband almost two years ago. Her friends Angie (Teri Ralston) and Martha (Juliet Lapointe)  finally convince her to leave her sadness behind and step back into the world.  They are regulars at the Stardust Ballroom and insist that the place and the people in it will do wonders for her spirit.  And, after some initial awkwardness, they are proven right.  A big boost happens when she meets Alfred Rossi (Bill Nolte), a mailman and a regular at the Ballroom.  He proves to be a great dancing partner and soon Bea is thinking he could be a great partner in all aspects of her life.  

However her controlling xsister Helen (Marcia Rodd) and her daughter Diane (Aviva Pressman) are not shy in letting Bea know that they think it is too soon to be seeing other men.  Only Bea’s brother-in-law Jack (Bill Lewis) seems to be on her side.  Even after learning(Spoiler alert ahead) that Alfred is already married, Bea still insists on seeing him.  To buy some thinking time, Bea takes a quick trip out to California to visit her son, David (Sean TimothyBrown) who supports her decision 100%.  So armed with renewed conviction she tells her family to stay out of her business.  Bea realizes that having some of Alfred is better than having none of him and sings the powerful song “Fifty Percent.”  She returns to the Ballroom and, in a show of their love for her, she is elected the new Queen of the Ballroom.  It is clear to her (and to us) that they have, in many ways, replaced her real family.

The changes have indeed integrated the two worlds of the story; Bea’s life and family and her life and ‘family’ inside the Ballroom.  But some problems still remain.  Many of the roles are more caricature than fully fleshed out roles. The sister is so overbearing that it is hard to imagine Bea having tolerated her for as long as she has.  One can only imagine that she was no better while Bea’s husband was alive. Bea’s brother-in-law is the cliché of a man who has long suffered his wife’s harsh tongue (although he does get off one of the biggest laugh getting lines of the evening.  The daughter’s turn-around is complete and almost instant just in time for the final curtain.  As for the people in the Ballroom, we know next to nothing about any of them.  So when one appears to be having a heart attack it’s hard to get too emotionally involved.  On top of that, she simply reappears in another Ballroom scene with absolutely no mention of what had happened and what the doctors actually found.  Another question in my head was why was Pauline, the reigning Queen, also the ‘girl singer’ for the orchestra.  Was this her job? How come she never dances?  These are just a couple of the issues caused by the reworking of the script.  The pacing of the show, especially in Act One, felt a bit slow.  There is a constant ping-ponging between the Ballroom (beautifully captured by Jimmy Cuomo’s set) and the outside world, which usually is her home.  The set changes take a little longer than the ideal pace of the show can sustain.  Perhaps a more abstract representation of Bea’s home would have helped speed things up or maybe just familiarity with the changes themselves will e shorten their length. All of these issues, both major and minor, are repairable in time but have not yet been solved. 

On the bright side, the cast assembled by director Ron Celona is terrific and he gets the most out of each of them.  Melodie Wolford literally blossoms before our eyes as she transitions from frumpy widow to the Queen of   the Ballroom.  Her rendition of “Fifty Percent” is strong, impassioned and heartfelt and makes a great impact.  As Alfred, Bill Nolte is absolutely charming.  He seems to worship the very ground she walks on and she happily is basking in the glow of that love.  Her decision to not cut off their relationship is understandable and believable with the great chemistry that exists between them.  Terri Ralston is a hoot playing Bea’s best friend Angie.  I was especially glad to see that she has the central part in a sassy, funny new song, “When A Guy Really Knows How To Dance.”  She injects a burst of welcomed energy into every scene she is in.  Likewise Marcia Rodd as Bea’s overly opinionated and controlling sister Helen manages to give the role a bit more substance than is indicated by her lines.  It’s a joy to see these wonderful pros light up and shine on the CVRep stage.

Although not perfect, this new BALLROOM is definitely an improvement over the original.  It will be of interest to every fan of musical theatre and well worth seeing.  It will be interesting to see where the show goes from here.

BALLROOM is playing at the CVRep (the former IMAX Theatre) in Cathedral City through Feb.16, 2020.  For tickets or further information call 760-296-2966 or visit their website at www.cvrep.org