Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - August 2, 2009
Burn the Floor Directed and Choreographed by Jason Gilkison. Creative Consultant Raj Kapoor. Scenic design by Ray Klausen. Lighting design by Rick Belzer. Costume design by Janet Hine (based on the original design by John Van Gastel). Sound design by Peter J. Fitzgerald. Cast: Sharna Burgess, Henry Byalikov, Kevin Clifton, Sasha Farber, Jeremy Garner, Gordana Grandosek, Patrick Helm, Sarah Hives, Melanie Hooper, Peta Murgatroyd, Giselle Peacock, Nuria Santalucia, Sarah Soriano, Damon Sugden, Rebecca Sugden, Trent Whiddon, Damian Whitewood, Robin Windsor, and Ricky Rojas and Rebecca Tapia. Special Guest Stars Karina Smirnoff and Maksim Chmerkovskiy.
Rest assured, the fantastic-light-tripping duo has been pried from the grips of people like Denise Richards and Steve Wozniak and placed instead among the more terpsichorially talented company that director-choreographer Jason Gilkison has assembled from all over the world. For what it's worth, those 18 dancers do most of the work, ripping up the stage (and, at key moments, the theater's aisles and boxes) with perfectly modulated abandon. Chmerkovskiy and Smirnoff merely appear at a few key points to dispense their TV-bestowed gravitas and some legitimate romantic heat on a show that, though flooded with flash and flesh, otherwise seldom sizzles.
The reason for this isn't hard to discern. The best Broadway and Hollywood choreographic talents have always understood that dance is most sensually charged when it represents emotions, not when it replaces them. Gilkison has created a basic survey of contemporary styles, spanning decades from about the 1920s to the present and every appropriate country in both North and Central America (with a special exception made for the older, but still highly relevant, Viennese Waltz), and divided the results into four sections ("Inspirations," "Things That Swing," "The Latin Quarter," and "Contemporary") by their general type. Although all of this may be informative and even inviting, it stops somewhere south of sexy.
You can be forgiven for thinking that Burn the Floor needs all the help it can get in that department. Though technically astonishing, its two hours of contextless dance numbers aren't primed for character- or drama-hungry theatregoers. A song like "Let's Face the Music and Dance" carries with it the memory of the legendarily charismatic Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Follow the Fleet, something that simply can't be challenged here. "Nights in White Satin" feels like an excuse for specific costuming material than a powerful basis for a story, and it lacks the soulful ache of the familiar Moody Blues rendition. Duke Ellington and Irving Mills's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" and Louis Prima's "Sing Sing Sing (with a Swing)" on some level require the big-band brassiness they can't get from Henry Soriano's four-piece band, and the expansive spirit that short bits in the middle of longer sections simply don't encourage.
The better numbers are those that create their own meaning, often with the help of crack vocalists Ricky Rojas and Rebecca Tapia, who provide additional groove and slick style at several points throughout. The jive-driven tale of a five-girl philanderer seems just right against the vocal backdrop of Felix Riebel's "Fishies," for example; and the two-part finale of "Proud Mary" (filled with rapidly shaking, layered white dresses and torn jeans) and "Turn the Beat Around" provides an energetic send-off from the full-company. Feelings are extraneous in moments like these, but it's hard to miss what you don't need.
Strangely enough, the few bits that should seem most foreign to this show's aesthetic are the ones that connect the most. On a handful of isolated occasions, the Technicolor bumping, strutting, and thrusting stops long enough to cede the stage to traditional ballroom - the traditional kind that emphasizes and elevates elegance and class. None of the other modern interlopers onstage can compete with the sight of tall men in white tie and tailcoats spinning elaborately decorated ladies in full evening attire, lost in the only reverie that should matter: each other.
The rest of the time, you only feel that when Chmerkovskiy and Smirnoff - who are only in the show until August 16 - are going at it full tilt. True, the black-and-white ballroom of decades past isn't their chosen domain. But while bringing classical form to a modern boil, they supply something more than merely their impressive physical virtuosity: humanity. That's the one thing truly great dance can never exist without, no matter how much the remainder of Burn the Floor tries to pretend otherwise.