Ten Cents a Dance: The Music and Lyrics of Rodgers and Hart
Also see Bob's review of Othello
A graying, middle-aged man (Malcolm Gets) comes down the stairs. As the man slowly, extendedly and glumly walks about the uninviting room, there is a sense of melancholy in both the man and the setting. This suggests that a depressing evening awaits attendees of the John Doyle conceived and directed Ten Cents a Dance: The Music and Lyrics of Rodgers and Hart.
The man then sits down at the piano and plays some notes from "Blue Moon" as five women, identified in the program as Miss Jones One through Five, appear at the top of the staircase and descend single file into the night club. Each is dressed in a slightly different cut of a floral patterned black and white dress with small traces of green; each is a strawberry blonde. They appear to be the same woman at different ages, although, in some cases, the difference in their personalities seems greater than could be accounted for by the passage of time. If this were actually Pal Joey, Miss Jones One (Elisa Winter) would be the innocent Linda and Miss Jones Five (Donna McKechnie) would be the sophisticated Vera. The man is identified in the program as Johnny, apparently in deference to the included "Johnny One Note." However, if you have the associations of Rodgers and Hart aficionados, you will more likely think of him as Joey.
As the music takes hold, barely perceptively, Ten Cents a Dance quickly and unexpectedly morphs into a delightful and transporting musical theatre experience. Although dialogue-free, this production is more than an ordinary Rodgers and Hart revue. Reservations notwithstanding, director-conceiver John Doyle herein displays a sharp theatrical sensibility and an uncanny affinity for the songs on display. He has created a bluesy scenario built around a singer-pianist's reveille through his extended and squandered relationship with the lost love of his life. In so doing, Doyle has provided strong ballast for the extraordinarily joyful and melodious music of the younger Richard Rodgers and the sophisticated wit and wistful poignancy of Lorenz Hart's lyrics. Add in the perceptive humor, tenderness and variety of Mary-Mitchell Campbell's brilliant arrangements (including thrilling girl group vocal harmonies reminiscent of the big band era), the magnificent phrasing, perceptive lyric interpretation, and pitch perfect voice of the extraordinary Malcolm Gets, the solid vocalization of each Miss Jones, and an exemplary sound system which gorgeously carries this cornucopia of musical delights caressingly to the ear, and the result is a sheer delight. While the gray setting and the overall arc of the underlying story are downbeat, hearing some of the greatest music in the history of the American musical theatre beautifully interpreted is joyful and exhilarating.
The more than thirty included songs are grouped into several scenes/segments. Many are sung through with the verse included, others are partially performed. However, unlike "here's a small taste of many songs" revue style medleys, each and every song is carefully thought out and interpreted to serve the warp and weft of the songs and the mood and story frame of the production. Although Johnny and all the Miss Joneses appear throughout and, for the most part, they sing and play their various instruments during each song, there is a chronological feel to the unfolding of the segments. There are breaks between each segment during which Johnny contemplates the women as they each stand motionless in a posed position.
The first segment suggests youthful yearning ("Blue Moon" and "Little Girl Blue"), connection ("Have You Met Miss Jones?"), and good times ("Johnny One Note"). The second segment deals with the all encompassing joy of fresh, romantic love ("Isn't It Romantic?", "My Romance" and "Where or When"). However, it includes an angry, ultimately wistful "Falling in Love with Love" and concludes with an angry "It Never Entered My Mind."
The next segment suggests the cooling of passion ("Nobody's Heart") and jaded cynicism ("To Keep My Love Alive"). During this segment, there is a full rendition of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" which encapsulates all of the legerdemain which has been brought to this production. Each of the five Miss Joneses brings a different approach to her segment of the song, ranging from Miss Jones One's unbridled and silly youthful exuberance to Miss Jones Five's bemused self awareness. Each of the interpretations are perfectly valid and would be fully satisfying for any singer performing the entire song. How pleasurable it is to experience this most familiar, beloved theatre classic is a valid, richly varied, new light.
There follows a single song segment in which Malcolm Gets mostly recites a melancholy "With a Song in My Heart" which seems to bring him back to the present. The final segment appears to be a scattered, late night jog through the memories of the consumed-with-regret Johnny. It includes "She Was Too Good to Me" and concludes with "I Didn't Know What Time It Was." In this segment, the evening's only bit of spoken dialogue which does not seem to be a Larry Hart lyric is Johnny's observation, "how happy I was when I was a nobody".
As noted, the actors supply their own musical accompaniment. It is no surprise that Malcolm Gets, who accompanies himself at the piano in cabaret performances, fares best. In fact, the integration of his singing and accompaniment is the only instance where benefit derives from the dual assignment. Donna McKechnie, who is clearly not a musician, is a good sport as she plays the triangle and other percussion instruments. The balance of the cast acquit themselves well enough on multiple instruments which include violin, cello, bass fiddle, saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, flute and guitar. Still, it could only benefit the vocals and performances if they could be freed of their instruments. And having a band freed from singing and acting could only improve the music. Given Mary-Mitchell Campbell's terrific arrangements, it is daunting to contemplate what she might do if the constraints of this maniacal concept were removed.
Malcolm Gets' precise, insightful phrasing and heartfelt vocals are letter prefect. His work put me in mind of the classic Frank Sinatra album, "In the Wee Small Hours" which coincidently includes a couple of Rodgers and Hart songs also deployed here. Donna McKechnie is lovely and poised as the sophisticated Miss Jones Five. She is in good voice, and her duet with Gets on "My Heart Stood Still" is lovely.
Among the other actors, Diana DiMarzio is delightfully distinctive as the jauntily cynical Miss Jones Four. She reminds one of Nancy Walker or Ethel Merman back in the day. Also distinctive and delightful is Eliza Winter as the bubbly, overly fresh-as-a-daisy Miss Jones One. Jessica Tyler Wright and Jane Pfitsch as Miss Jones Two and Miss Jones Three each perform well. However, in this circumstance, they are so similar in appearance and persona that as each performs, I am not certain whether I am watching Miss Jones Two or Three. This is unfair to the performers and detracts from the otherwise successful mood/story. John Doyle must take full blame for this ridiculous revisal of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
It should be noted that John Doyle's quirky one-act, 75-minute long Ten Cents a Dance is a controversial production whose somber mood and setting (not to mention instrument-laden actors) clearly distanced a number of audience members at the performance that I attended. However, I was totally delighted listening to the sumptuous rendering of the songs of Rodgers and Hart in a production whose story thread and mood truly enhanced them.
I recommend that you give Ten Cents a Dance a try. If you find the mood and/or story thread not to your taste, I suggest that you focus on the music. It is priceless.
Ten Cents a Dance: The Music and Lyrics of Rodgers and Hart continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday 7:30 pm; Friday, Saturday 8 pm/ Matinees.: Saturday 3 pm; Sunday 2 pm - (except 10/9 Eve.) through October 9, 2011, at the McCarter Theatre Center (Berlind Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton 08540. Box Office: 609-258-2787; online: www.mccarter.org.
Ten Cents a Dance: The Music and Lyrics of Rodgers and Hart. Conceived and Directed by John Doyle