Long Beach Island's Surflight Theatre kicks off its 2023 season June 1 with Kander and Ebb's "Steel Pier: The Musical," on stage through June 17.
The show features music by the accomplished team of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb with music direction and vocal arrangements by former Surflight Musical Director David Loud, who served in that role on Broadway, and is directed and choreographed by resident Director and Choreographer Paula Sloan. (Ms. Sloan is also Surflight’s Education Director and General Manager.)
"Proud to be representing such a historical landmark in New Jersey, just 25 miles from Long Beach Island," the press release states, "Surflight is thrilled that the 'Showplace of the Nation' in the 1930s will be showcased as this show…unfolds on our stage."
And what a story it is. Focusing on the world of dance marathons, "Steel Pier" explores what goes on during the fierce competitions and the less apparent happenings beyond the spotlights.
All photos by Pat Trotter
"Dance marathons created a culture," said Gail Anderson, Surflight's Associate Artistic Director / Production Manager / Press Director / Casting Director.
Dancers traveled the circuit, hoping to grab fame and fortune. "This was pre-TV, pre-internet. People listened in on the radio to hear what was happening," she said. "These people became stars in their own right."
"It was the Depression, and the dancers were hoping to make money and get sponsorships," Anderson said. "Even if they didn't win, the sponsorships gave them things, like clothes. And they had a place to live at the marathons. They were fed at the marathons."
"It was a whole world."
Like in real life, this bubble-like universe created an explosive mixture of glamour, greed, fame, rejection, jealousy and secrets. Lots of secrets.
"There is a sham wedding in the show that is staged as a publicity stunt, but the woman who is 'being married' is really married to the man running the dance marathon," she said. "And nobody knows that."
"The audiences followed along in installments," Anderson said. "The thing went on for three weeks, and fans could listen in every night."
"They wanted to know who dropped out, or came late, or who was walking on the beach together," she said. "It was like a 1930s version of a reality show."
Dance is the main character in this story. "There are all different dancing styles," Anderson said, "and the sheer variety and quality are outstanding. These people never leave the stage, as they would in a dance marathon."
And what about the music? I asked. How does it move the story along?
"There is a wide range of musical styles as well," she said. "Kander and Ebb are a phenomenal composing team, and the songs, especially the power ballads that the leads sing, really pull out the characters' internal struggles."
Besides the fascinating story, the dazzling dancing and the fantastic score, personal connection is another reason that Surflight chose to open its season with this show.
"One of my best friends is the son of Al Alberts, who did a show from the Steel Pier, and I would go there to see his father's show," Anderson said. "It was special."
And, back in those simpler days, the place had such a mystique. "I've had people comment on our social media pages about how they remember going there as a child and what a whole experience it was."
"They had music and movies and games and attractions," she said. "It was like its own entertainment city."
And during those peak years, anybody who was anybody – from Frank Sinatra to the Rolling Stones – appeared there.
Another factor in scheduling a lively show like "Steel Pier" early in the season is its appeal to groups. "June can be a little early for the summer audience, but there are several 55+ communities in our area, and many groups come to us."
"We are also an excellent deal," she said. "Rather than spend two hours driving to New York City to see a show, people can come here for high-quality entertainment."
For a much more reasonable cost, people can enjoy a true something-for-everyone selection of productions and performances.
"A lot of people are slipping away from the hassle – the traffic, the crowds – and choosing something different."
This topic led Anderson and me to talk about the state of post-pandemic entertainment. "People are still coming back," she said. "It's not so much that they are afraid at this point, but more that they got out of the habit of going outside their homes for entertainment."
"We offer extremely diverse programming, and we continue to build our audience, especially our younger patrons."
And while most people who come to the Surflight are summer and year-round island residents, the venue draws from a much wider area.
"We have a mailing list of all 50 states," Anderson said. "Vacationers come from all over, and when they return home, they tell their friends and neighbors about the Surflight."
And believe it or not, Anderson claims that one of the big selling points of the theater is the legroom in the aisles.
The theater seats were replaced recently after 30+ years, and the original seating plan was available, ensuring the comfortable spacing patrons had come to appreciate.
"We were recently in New York for a show," Anderson said, "and it felt like our knees were up around our chins."
That won't happen at Surflight.