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Contact and
Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks

For its fifth and final offering this season, the Ahmanson brings us the touring production of the Tony Award winning Contact. On Broadway, Contact seemed new and inventive; in L.A., coming as it does at the end of an Ahmanson season which already included a dance musical (Swing!) and just finished another piece comprising three mini-musicals (3hree), it is difficult to get excited about this three-show dance musical. I fear for Matthew Bourne's Car Man , the first musical of the theatre's next season, because the Ahmanson audience might be all danced out.

And Contact is a dance musical, even more than a show like Swing! which took a break now and then for a sung number. All of the music in Contact is prerecorded (and none of it is original), which puts the burden of the show squarely on the creativity of Susan Stroman's choreography, the emotional impact of John Weidman's book, and, of course, the execution of the dance by the 26-member cast. And, although the dancers are uniformly excellent, the material is somewhat uneven.

The first story in Contact is an eleven-minute number inspired by Fragonard's 1768 painting, "The Swing." The painting features a French woman, wearing a pink dress, riding a swing. To one side, an aristocrat lounges at her feet. In the background, another man pushes her. Contact brings the painting to life: a servant pushes the lady on the swing, while her boyfriend, lying on the ground, takes gratuitous glimpses up her dress as she swings past. Much of the dance that follows happens on the swing itself; and the choreography emphasizes the various ways in which dancers, especially those with acrobatic leanings, can erotically combine on a swing. It's an entertaining piece which effectively tells a complete story using almost no dialogue, and serves as a good introduction to Stroman's storytelling technique.

The bulk of Contact's first act is taken up by "Did You Move?", which follows the fantasy life of a neglected housewife in 1954. Escorted by her uncaring husband to an Italian restaurant buffet, the wife, played by Meg Howrey, can't stop chattering excitedly, even though her husband (played by a versatile Adam Dannheisser) just wants her to shut up, eat her food, and "Don't f***ing move." But she has a soul that longs to fly and when her husband gets up to fill his plate with manicotti, she imagines herself dancing around the restaurant in an exuberant display of freedom which ends as her husband returns to the table. When her husband leaves in search of more food, her mind starts to wander again, and this time she dances of love, bringing the restaurant's headwaiter into her fantasy as the perfect lover.

If "Did You Move?" had ended after this sequence, it would have been perfect. There are, however, more dances in the wife's future. We learn that her husband isn't simply unattentive, but also physically abusive. What's worse, he has a gun, and threatens to kill her. The end result is a revenge fantasy that is part comical, part surreal, and ultimately unsatisfactory. The dance itself is entertaining, but in order for it to reach the wife's ride on a food cart with a string of sausages around her neck, the story has to move beyond simple escapism into bizarre territory from which it cannot easily return.

No such plot problems exist with Contact's third, eponymous piece. It is the story of a present-day advertising executive named Michael Wiley (Alan Campbell), who, on the evening of winning an award, looks back on his life and discovers how empty it is. Finding his life devoid of human contact, he chooses suicide. But Wiley's incompetence in life extends to his attempts at death, and, after several failed attempts, Wiley leaves his fashionable apartment and wanders the streets, finding himself at a swing dance club. Wiley is still unsure about participating in life, much less dance, but he can't help but pay attention to a beautiful woman in a yellow dress. Holly Cruikshank, as the girl in the yellow dress, is stunning. Taller than every other woman on the stage (and most of that is leg), Cruikshank dominates the club with her presence and movement. Without dancing a step, Cruikshank telegraphs that the girl in the yellow dress is the girl to dance with, just by the way she sits on a bar stool. Wiley can't resist her, and the emotional heart of Contact is this bad dancer's struggle to scrounge up the will to ask this Cyd Charisse of a partner to dance. We've all faced the challenge of approaching someone "out of our league," but the book of the show wisely raises the stakes for Michael Wiley. It is literally a life or death matter for him; if he does not succeed in making contact with this woman, he will return to his suicide attempts.

Wiley's urgent fight to find a place in human society is played out before a series of swing dances, executed to music ranging from Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing" to Robert Palmer's "Simply Irresistible." Stroman's choreography is first rate, displaying the perfection of the girl in the yellow dress, the challenge posed by the dancers that stand between her and Wiley, and the society of dancers moving in unison from which Wiley is excluded. The piece is the perfect combination of great dance and heart-stirring story, and it alone makes Contact more than just another dance musical.

Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre, Gordon Davidson, Artistic Director/Producer; Lincoln Center Theater under the direction of Andre Bishop and Bernard Gersten; and Scott Nederlander and SFX Theatrical Group present the Lincoln Center Theater production of Contact by Susan Stroman and John Weidman; written by John Weidman, choreography by Susan Stroman; sponsored by The Jerome L. Green Foundation; with (in alphabetical order) Andrew Asnes, Aliane Baquerot, Christopher Lee Body, Alan Campbell, Laura Catalano, Holly Cruikshank, Adam Dannheisser, Donna Dunmire, Gary Franco, Stacey Todd Holt, Meg Howrey, Mike Jackson, Danielle Jolie, Keith Kuhl, Jason Lacayo, Joseph Mooradian, Lee Mark Nelson, Ipsita Paul, Angela Piccinni, Julius Sermonia, Rebecca Sherman, Rick Spaans, Dan Sutcliffe, Susanne Trani, Michelle Weber, Mindy Franzese Wild. Sets by Thomas Lynch, costumes by William Ivey Long, lighting by Peter Kaczorowski, sound by Scott Stauffer, technical supervision by Unitech, tour marketing & press by TMG - The Marketing Group, production stage manager Eric Sprosty, associate choreographer Chris Peterson, associate director Thom Widmann, tour general manager Emanuel Azenberg and Abbie M. Strassler, casting by Tara Rubin Casting, Daniel Swee, direction by Susan Stroman. Contact runs at the Ahmanson Theatre through September 1, 2001.

David Hyde Pierce has no right to be as good as he is. I don't mean to begrudge television audiences the weekly laughs he inspires on Frasier, but after watching this guy hold his own opposite the great Uta Hagen, I've got to wonder what other performances we would have seen if Pierce hadn't been otherwise occupied for the past nine seasons.

The play is Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks, a comedy/drama about a Florida retiree (Hagen), who signs up for a course which brings an extroverted and quick-tempered dance teacher (Pierce) to her door. It is your standard "two people with nothing in common are brought together in unlikely circumstances and find they have more in common than they originally thought" script. And the two characters do seem pretty different. Pierce's Michael Minetti, a gay Italian ex-chorus boy, looks to be a poor choice to teach Hagen's Lily Harrison, the upstanding wife of a preacher. But these characters are more than one-line descriptions, and their experiences and attitudes toward the disappointments life has dealt them are the basis for a deeper relationship. The play is part light comedy, part cross-generational bonding experience, part tolerance lesson, and part tear-jerker. The script is at its best in comedy; the jokes come easily, as do the observations on life. The more dramatic transitions are somewhat awkward, and the script goes for the predictable so often that I almost stood up and cheered when Minetti explained that his partner had died of something other than AIDS. But Hagen and Pierce power through the weak spots in the play, and Richard Alfieri's script comes off more smoothly in their hands than it probably otherwise would.

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks is a solid play, but not an extraordinary one. Don't go expecting something thought-provoking or new. Go for the sheer pleasure of watching Uta Hagen on stage, for the laughter she wrings out of a pause, and the honesty with which she portrays the fears of aging. Go for David Hyde Pierce's surprisingly multi-layered performance; and definitely, go to watch them dance.

Geffen Playhouse; Gilbert Cates, Producing Director; Randall Arney, Artistic Director; Stephen Eich, Managing Director; presents Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks by Richard Alfieri, with Uta Hagen and David Hyde Pierce. Scenery by Roy Christopher, costumes by Helen Butler, Lighting by Tom Ruzika, Sound by Philip G. Allen, Dances Staged by Kay Cole, Production Stage Manager Alice Elliott Smith. Directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman.

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks plays at the Geffen Playhouse through July 29, 2001.


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-- Sharon Perlmutter




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