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Considering the diminutive nature of The Rink (nine performers, a single set), and the fact that megamusical king Cameron MacIntosh is an honorary trustee of Signature Theater, it’s sly of artistic director Eric Schaeffer to begin his seventh season with a Phantom of the Opera joke. Instead of having a dusty chandelier rise slowly from the stage as the overture begins, Schaeffer sends a shattered roller-rink mirrorball floating ominously toward the rafters—a distance of perhaps 12 feet.

Like its larger cousin in Phantom, it will come crashing down near the midpoint of the evening, endangering the protagonist and prompting melodious melodrama by the bucketful. Also like its larger cousin, it’s the first of many directorial distractions, all cannily designed to divert attention from the fact that the material being illustrated is slightly secondhand.

Mind you, secondhand Kander and Ebb is several rungs up the showbiz (not to mention evolutionary) ladder from secondhand Lloyd Webber, and if The Rink often echoes other shows, those echoes are rarely hollow. This 1984 flop was one of the few musicals that composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb (working with playwright Terrence McNally) built entirely from scratch, and their emotional investment in it is palpable.

Unlike their hits Cabaret, Chicago, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, this show had no book or movie to guide them past sentimental pitfalls, no ready-made plot on which to hang song cues. Their story—about the caustic reunion of estranged, frumpish flower-child Angel and her roller-rink-owning mother, Anna—derives most of its tension from the fact that the dilapidated old joint they’re squabbling in (and about) is in the process of being torn down. Anna has hired six workmen—who will double in flashbacks as the men (and at one point, the women) in their lives—to reduce the rink to rubble at precisely the moment Angel gets her fill of real-world drabness and decides she needs a place with colored lights and a glittery mirrorball to come home to. Recriminations and reminiscences aside, that’s about it for plot, so you can’t fault Schaeffer for employing diversionary tactics.

With his mock-Phantom prologue, he’s taking a cue from McNally, who put a wink-at-the-audience Cats joke in the script. He’s also defusing a contemporary viewer’s natural tendency to associate any musical that so much as mentions roller-skating with Starlight Express (a task choreographer Karma Camp completes with a giddily careening, audience-circling title-number that offers more fun-on-wheels in six minutes than Lloyd Webber’s rolling choo-choos offered in two hours). Starlight hadn’t opened in the U.S. when Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli debuted on Broadway as Anna and Angel, so that wasn’t a problem back then.

Still, the original production had plenty of others, chief among them an ill-considered opening that gave away both the evening’s biggest surprise and the score’s best song before the plot even got under way. Also problematic was Minnelli’s casting as a frump (audiences wanted her glamorous) and the authors’ airy dismissal of the anti-war and social protests that had occupied Angel while she was estranged from her mother. Coming from the folks who’d written such socially conscious pieces as Cabaret and And Things That Go Bump in the Night, this smacked of pandering to the expense-account crowd, and led Frank Rich to suggest in the New York Times that while “Miss Rivera is a performer you could watch forever…the show’s running time is forever and a day.”

Well, much judicious pruning later, two acts have shrunk to one, and the story Rich derided as “turgid and sour” has become reasonably brisk and tart. It’s still plenty derivative, but in a way that often proves enjoyable in Signature’s production. As echoes of other shows ricochet evocatively around designer Lou Stancari’s cavernous, faux-deco skating rink, with its crumbling glass-block walls and pipe organ, some are bound to prompt the same sort of nostalgia for old-fashioned book musicals that Angel harbors for her less-than-idyllic childhood.

For instance, I haven’t been able to get the evening’s catchy opening number—Anna’s self-describing “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer”—out of my head for 48 hours as I write this, though somehow it keeps segueing into the vamp from Chicago’s opener, “All That Jazz.” Try to sing Anna’s bouncy first argument with Angel, “Don’t Ah, Ma Me,” after the show and it’s likely to turn into Stephen Sondheim’s patter song from Company, “Not Getting Married Today.” There are echoes of Jacques Brel in Angel’s hurdy-gurdy yearning for “Colored Lights,” and of Jerry Herman in the ’round ’n’ ’round title-number polka that builds to a literally dizzying climax. And the near-showstopper with which the leads admit that they’re not all that different, “The Apple Doesn’t Fall…,” is practically a carbon copy of “The Grass Is Always Greener,” which had stopped Kander and Ebb’s Woman of the Year just three years before The Rink debuted on Broadway.

All these numbers are delivered either straight at the audience, or in that three-quarters-toward-the-folks-out-front stance that was common in musical stagings of two and three decades ago. Schaeffer’s designers may have created a megamusical-style environment (the screech of seagulls greets patrons in the lobby, and a boardwalk takes them from ticket-taker to a persuasively rinklike auditorium, where they’re confronted by signs banning boomboxes and tank tops) but the director’s not abandoning an earlier era’s sense of showbiz.

His stars are B’way-style belters whose unmiked voices only occasionally get swamped by the snappy seven-piece orchestra led by Chris Youstra. Patricia Pearce Gentry, who sounds a bit like Rivera on raspy low notes, has inherited the role of Anna, and sells it like crazy, treating her dialogue like the series of snappy one-liners and rejoinders it is. The fact that she can’t kick quite as high as her predecessor has spared her from a rape ballet that was much criticized in the original. Sherri L. Edelen’s Angel has Minnelli’s round-eyed vulnerability and a firm, brassy way with big notes. Her rendition of “Colored Lights” is a knockout. John J. Kaczynski is a persuasive, if full-voiced, loser as Anna’s footloose husband, and Larry Redmond is charmingly nondescript as the middle-aged shlub who’s been waiting around since high school for Anna to realize he’s alive. The others skate well and sing loudly, which is very nearly all that’s required of them.

Technical credits are fine, though Schaeffer and lighting designer Daniel MacLean Wagner probably ought to have found a way to delineate flashbacks more clearly. As things stand, it’s always clear when a character has suddenly turned 16, but sometimes not until a line or two after it happens. Still, that’s a minor quibble. Mostly the show works remarkably well, considering its troubled history. In fact, the staging’s focus on showmanship rather than story even renders McNally’s by-fiat tying up of loose ends and termination of his heroines bickering considerably less damaging than it might be otherwise.

The ending was always a problem. At the show’s premiere in 1984, the Times opined that the final number sounded “like Sweeney Todd played at the wrong speed,” so three years ago, when the creative team reworked the show, it came up with a new finale. Then, after all three creators attended Signature’s dress rehearsal two weekends ago, they scrubbed their new song in what everyone at the theater now describes as a “pinch me” moment, and on the spot crafted yet another finale out of bits and pieces of the heroines’ big numbers. Not surprisingly, it has a makeshift quality—sort of like the reprises ’60s shows used for their curtain calls—but what the hell, it gets the characters to a fadeout, and provides one last big, brassy high note for Angel.

That note, and the showbizzy bravura behind it, is really what The Rink is all about, not undemonstrative mothers and their prodigal daughters. And that’s why the show succeeds as well as it does at Signature. Design elements may conspire to deny The Rink some of the intimacy that’s been one of the surest assets of other musicals in this house—where patrons at Passion might well have felt there was no boundary at all between audience and actors, this show has a safety railing at the lip of its set to keep skaters from rolling off the raked stage. But if this enforces physical separation, the direct-eye-contact, comin’-at-ya’ performance style certainly minimizes the distance.CP