In Your Arms
Also see Bill's review of Blueprints to Freedom: An Ode to Bayard Rustin
But, what if you eschewed words and did your storytelling only with images, movements, sounds, and music? Well, yes you can, as director/choreographer Susan Stroman demonstrated with Contact in 2000. Contact was controversial, however; it won the Tony Award for Best Musical without having an original score, or having the music played live.
The group that put together the Contactlike In Your Arms, currently making its world premiere at San Diego's Old Globe Theatreresolved that problem by commissioning Stephen Flaherty to write a score for live orchestra to accompany a series of vignettes that tell stories through dance (Mr. Flaherty's long-time collaborator, Lynn Ahrens, has a small role in contributing lyrics).
The glue that holds the 105-minute, no-intermission show together, however, is Christopher Gattelli's choreography and stage direction. And, within the limits of the genre, Mr. Gattelli and his dancers pull off an evening of engaging storytelling.
The theme of the evening is romance, and Mr. Gattelli begins with a traditional ballet version of the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Then, he enlists a parade of elite theatrical storytellers to contribute brief romantic tales that could be set to dance. Some of the responses draw on cultural differences: Nilo Cruz uses the onset of fascism in Spain to separate tango dancing partners, reuniting them in Argentina. Lynn Nottage illustrates poignantly the plight of refugees in her depiction of a newly married African couple's long, hard, journey northward toward a better life. Douglas Carter Beane backtracks to Greenwich Village in the 1920s to remind audiences that gay men in that era may have been very visible but their love was still socially unacceptable. And, David Henry Hwang nicely resets the Chinese white snake fable into the world of Hong Kong martial arts films.
Some of the vignettes work less well. Alfred Uhry's story of tentative young love has nowhere to go, once the scene has been set. Rajiv Joseph's fantasy sequence suffers by being unlike anything else on the program. And, Marsha Norman and Terrence McNally's segments on mature love seemed to pale next to the others. Mr. McNally's is particularly disappointing, because it features the two "name" performers, Donna McKechnie and George Chakiris, and gives them precious little to do. Thank goodness, Ms. McKechnie has bookend scenes at the beginning and end of the show where she gets to sing Ms. Ahrens and Mr. Flaherty's title song.
The evening's highlights, though, are the two stories that go for humor. Carrie Fisher's contribution goes "meta," as she puts a writer not unlike herself on stage and takes the audience through the process of imagining her story, a sort of silent-film version of The Little Tramp pursuing a dancer who is out of his league. And Christopher Durang sets his piece at an international ballroom competition in 1968 Russia and has much fun portraying the geopolitical implications of a Russian and an American dancer falling for each other during the competition.
Mr. Gattelli's choreography orients itself to classical ballet but breaks into other styles as needed. Because these are love stories, many feature extended pas de deux that are well performed by dancers from a variety of backgrounds. Mr. Gattelli won the Tony Award for his choreography of the musical Newsies, but I'd characterize his style here as graceful, rather than athletic. Mr. Flaherty's music complements that style well, shifts gears as needed, and even inserts touches of humor.
The technical work meets or exceeds the Old Globe's usual standards, with Olivia Sebesky's projection design providing the flexibility to change locale on a dime.
Taken as a whole, the evening is perfect as a late summer divertissement, and the lingering San Diego heatwave provides just the excuse to head to the theatre.
The Old Globe presents In Your Arms through October 25, 2015. Performances Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7pm, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 8pm, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm, at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego's Balboa Park. Tickets may be purchased by calling (619) 23-GLOBE [234-5623] or by visiting www.theoldglobe.org.
Music by Stephen Flaherty, Vignettes by Douglas Carter Beane, Nilo Cruz, Christopher Durang, Carrie Fisher, David Henry Hwang, Rajiv Joseph, Terrence McNally, Marsha Norman, Lynn Nottage, and Alfred Uhry, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Conceived by Christopher Gattelli and Jennifer Manocherian.
Directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli with Scenic Design by Derek McLane, Costume Design by Jess Goldstein, Lighting Design by Donald Holder, Sound Design by Peter Hylenski, Projection Design by Olivia Sebesky, Orchestrator, Michael Starobin, and Music Director, Steven Malone.
The cast includes Marija Juliette Abney, Henry Byalikov, Claire Camp, George Chakiris, Spencer Clark, Jeremy Davis, Jenn Harris, Glenda Sol Koeraus, Jess LeProtto, Donna McKechnie, Adesola Osakalumi, Karine Plantadit, Hayley Podschun, Jonathan Sharp, Ryan Steele, Brendon Stimson, Alex Michael Stoll, Samantha Sturm, Oscar Valero, Erica, and Lyrica Woodruff.