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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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