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Flash Review, 2-6: Selling Out
Split Verdict on Stroman's "Double Feature" for NYCB

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2004 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- It's a sad commentary on American culture that one of our Pillars of Art, the New York City Ballet, has to think more about filling seats to make its fiscal bottom line than about creating great art. But that financial reality at least partially motivated Peter Martins to turn to Susan Stroman of commercial theater fame ("Contact," "Show Boat," "The Producers," etc.) to make an evening-length ballet for the company.

Balanchine, of course, staged Broadway and film musicals during his career, Martins rationalized, so, for his centennial celebration gift, Mr. B gets "Double Feature," a work -- actually two stand-alone ballets -- inspired by silent movies, that aims squarely at entertaining crowds. The good news is it works: Martins has a genuine hit on his hands.

Ever since Petipa, story ballets have had enormous audience appeal, and Stroman knows how to exploit it. "The Blue Necklace," the movie-poster front curtain tells us, is "a thrilling melodrama about a great actress and the daughter she left behind." The adopted waif, Young Mabel (danced brightly by School of American Ballet student Tara Sorine), forced by her cruel adoptive mother (a deliciously malicious Kyra Nichols) to clean house (Cinderella, anyone?) finds solace in dancing. Years later, when Mabel (danced grownup by Ashley Bouder) escapes from her locked apartment and crashes a society benefit ball, she rediscovers her real mom, the fabulously rich movie star and hostess Dorothy Brooks (tall, glamorous Maria Kowroski), and wins the heart of her dream heart-throb, movie idol Billy Randolph (dashing Damian Woetzel), a celebrity guest at the bash.

Mark Stanley strobe-lights the opening to suggest silent movies, as do the snappy black, white, and gray-toned sets and costumes by Robin Wagner and William Ivey Long, respectively. Musical arranger Glen Kelly creates a terrific score from Irving Berlin tunes for "Necklace" and Walter Donaldson hits, including the title song, for "Makin' Whoopee," the second half of the evening. Dialog flashes on a rear screen, so you never have to guess what's going on. (Maybe American Ballet Theatre should take a cue and similarly clarify all that pesky pantomime in their "Giselles" and "Swan Lakes," et al.)

The style Stroman and her creative team achieve is impeccable, from the brassy, black-bewigged chorines in the nightclub revue that opens "Necklace" (think Copacabana on toe) to a bustling street scene, a la "An American in Paris," with cops and soldiers and schoolgirls rushing around, to the Keystone Kops-like chases in "Whoopee," when a horde of brides (of assorted genders) pursues Jimmie Shannon (a Chaplin-esque Tom Gold), whose business partners and lawyer (Albert Evans, Seth Orza, and Arch Higgins) advertise in the N.Y. Times for a bride. Shannon must wed by his twenty-seventh birthday -- today -- to collect a $7 million inheritance from his late uncle, whose will stipulates that deadline for his nephew's marriage.

Stroman uses all the ballet cliches in the book but reanimates them by using them convincingly to advance the emotional plot and adding little details that make you see them anew. A pique arabesque with a hip swivel on balance by Mabel becomes truly flirtatious. Simple arabesque and front attitude promenades, gazing into each other's eyes, embody Billy and Mabel's mutual infatuation in their pas de deux, danced to "How Deep is the Ocean?" The dancers brim with energy, and in last Wednesday's performance, only one took a tumble.

Stroman and Kelly's theatrically masterful choreographic libretto places spectacle -- Brooks's celebrity benefit ball -- adroitly to heat up the action and sets up quiet moments -- Nichols's oh-how-I-envy-the-rich solo -- right after flashy ones like Billy's technically amazing variation that lets Woetzel unleash his jaw-dropping jumps and turns.

"Whoopee" has a less cohesive narrative, but features an array of piquant characters: the women Shannon tries to cajole into marriage include studious Georgy (Dana Hanson), who rebuffs him with a slap; Peggy (Amanda Hankes), who howls with laughter at his proposal; Olga (Rebecca Krohn), a scam artist -- her subtitles are in Russian; Irene (Jessica Flynn), a precocious grade-schooler who accepts his offer, until her mother appears; and Flossy (Carla Korbes), a flirt, whose husband (Ask la Cour) dashes Jimmie's hopes by smashing his nose. In the end, of course, Jimmie weds his first love Anne (Alexandra Ansanelli). Her pug-nosed canine (unnamed), dances precisely on beat, tags onto the brides' pursuit wearing a veil, and handily upstages everybody.

"Double Feature" is a big hit for the company. The production may be selling out, but is the company? What does trying to emulate the slick pace, lavish production, and broad-stroke projection of old-fashioned commercial Broadway offer audiences about the deeper values of Art?

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