Supposedly, when Richard Rodgers learned that director Walter Lang was thinking about spicing up the film version of The King And I by adding some scenes of an overtly sexual nature, he was quick to set Walter straight on how things work in the land of musical theater. He informed Walter that in musicals, when two people first meet, they talk. When they fall in love, they sing. But when they are making love, they dance. If that is the case, there was a whole lot of making love going on last week here in Seattle when the touring production of contact came for a visit.
The controversial winner of last year's Tony for Best New Musical, contact is essentially the stage equivalent of Disney's Fantasia as it tells stories almost strictly through movement and imagery set to pre-existing (and pre-recorded) music. While many people (present company included) would argue that contact is a dance concert rather than a musical, there is no arguing the powerful storytelling on display nor the compelling stagecraft created by director/choreographer Susan Stroman (who won a Tony for her choreography) and her writing partner, John Weidman.
Contact is comprised of three individual vignettes that explore various ways people try and connect with other individuals or groups. The first piece, "Swinging," is inspired by a 1767 painting by Fragonard, which depicts an elegantly dressed woman on a swing. This impish coquette (deliciously brought to life by Mindy Franzese Wild) swings in both the 1767 and 1967 sense of the word as she toys with the affections of two ardent suitors (Andrew Asnes and the passionate, sultry Keith KŸhl). Set to a violin jazz version of Rodgers and Hart's "My Heart Stood Still" by Stephane Grappelli, "Swinging" is a delightful piece of eye candy that is more naughty than tawdry and contains some highly entertaining athletic dancing.
The show ends with "The Girl In The Yellow Dress;" the number that has become the focal point of the show's ad campaign. It was inspired by an evening Stroman spent at an after-hours dance club in which she witnessed a mysterious woman in a yellow dress who would enter the dance floor, wait for a man to approach her and either dismiss or accept him as a dance partner, after which she would retreat to the sidelines until the next time the mood struck. Stroman and Weidman once again found an exciting balance of comic and dark elements and created a satisfying tale of one man's search for personal salvation. "The Girl In The Yellow Dress" tells the tale of Michael Wiley (earnestly played by Alan Campbell), a suicidal commercial director at the peak of his success who desperately seeks contact with something or someone to make his life meaningful. He finds it in a mysterious vision in a yellow dress (the sultry, incredible Holly Cruikshank) and, urged on by a Kramer-esque bartender (Adam Dannheisser), becomes a frequent visitor to the dance hall in an effort to reach redemption through connection.
While I have seen Susan Stroman's work in traditional Broadway fare in everything from Crazy For You to The Producers, this was the first time I witnessed her do something more personal. Stroman has always had a knack for telling stories through movement using various forms and styles of dance, and interweaving them with quirky props or set pieces. In contact, we discover that she also is a genius at combining heavy passion and light whimsy into a harmonious whole. Each story in contact is essentially a one-act play told through movement and imagery, each containing twists and turns that surprise while maintaining an organic feel. Her work in contact was enhanced by an incredible light design by Peter Kaczorowski, which added subtle shadings to an already well drawn piece of stage craft, deceptively simple sets by Thomas Lynch, and costumes by William Ivey Long which are almost characters themselves (including the iconic yellow dress).
Contact ran at The Paramount Theater for an all-too-brief stay, September 18-23, before continuing its tour.
Another sort of dancing altogether is occurring at The 5th Avenue Theatre where two unlikely dance partners are waltzing in a rare instance of mutual cooperation. The artistic directors of The 5th Avenue Theatre (David Armstrong) and A Contemporary Theatre (Gordon Edelstein) have paired up to stage a production of Stephen Sondheim's Tony Award winning masterpiece, A Little Night Music. The fact that the show is written in 3/4, or 'waltz,' time is highly appropriate as the waltz is emblematic of the two companies' relationship: while appearing deceptively simple, waltzing relies on a close, intuitive relationship between the partners and one misstep can cause an unsightly stumble. Thankfully, the two theaters presented a near seamless dance and have formed what hopefully will be a lingering alliance, as they have done a superb job in mounting an incredibly difficult and demanding show.
And therein lies the great difficulty of the piece; making audiences care about these largely unsympathetic characters. The show receives a great deal of assistance through a lush, melodic score by Sondheim that contains his singular hit song, "Send In The Clowns," and a witty book by Hugh Wheeler that manages to be sexy without becoming smutty. This production is further helped by an excellent director, David Armstrong, who guided the proceedings with a subtle hand that choreographed the sexual politics, overtones, and games into a smooth, seamless waltz. Between his guidance and some incredibly strong performers, the characters largely come to three-dimensional life, instead of the caricatures they could have become.
As Desiree, Hayley Mills brings an understated air of faded glamour mixed with an edge of desperation. The chemistry between her and Fredrik (strongly played by local actor Stephen Godwin) is palatable and believable, and the sexual energy fairly leaps off the stage in their duet of mutual frustration, "You Must Meet My Wife." While "Send in the Clowns" isn't quite the acting tour-de-force it should be, due to some rushing on Hayley's part, the seeds of a stirring performance are there and I am certain that as she settles into the part the results will prove amazing. In her first musical endeavor, Claire Bloom gives a solid performance as Madame Armfeldt, giving a more ambulatory performance than I'm used to seeing from the character (although she never seems to need the cane she often uses in place of the traditional wheelchair). Tim Martin Gleason crafts a many facetted portrayal as Henrik, perfectly capturing the frustrations, both sexual and moral, that plague his character (I was distracted, however, by his cello bowing in "Later," which matched his vocal line rather than the cello line he was supposedly playing). Robert Cuccioli sounds glorious as the puffed up popinjay, Carl-Magnus, but brings little depth or complexity to what is admittedly a one-dimensional part. As Anne, Laura Griffith comes to thrilling life when she sings, showing a sparkle and delight that is often times missing when she merely speaks. Cara Rudd brings a charming sense of knowing innocence to Fredrika, the only reasonably sane and pure character in the show. And the five Liebslieders, who act as part Greek Chorus/part sprites ala Midsummer Night's Dream, are all strong: Eric Polani Jensen, Victoria Rose Gydov, Mary Jo DuGaw, Aaron Shanks and Beth Zumann.
Special mention must be made of two actors who give incredibly thrilling performances that help bring the musical to marvelous life. Kendra Kassebaum's Petra is sprightly and sexy without being slutty, and a delight to watch. Her performance of "The Miller's Son" is as thrilling a piece of musical theater imaginable and one of the best renditions I have had the pleasure to hear. The real standout, however, is local actress Suzanne Bouchard who steals the show as Charlotte, the embittered and embattled wife of Carl-Magnus. Her dry, all too-knowing delivery nails every sting and quip and cuts to the quick, without ever descending to bitchy or pathetic. Her rendition of what may be Sondheim's darkest, most pessimistic number, "Every Day a Little Death," (with the oh-so-quotable line, "Men are stupid/men are vain/love's disgusting/love's insane") make me wish this production had reinserted "My Husband, The Pig" to give her more time to shine. As I left the theater, I heard several patrons remark that they would have loved to see her play Desiree at some point, and I have to concur.
The orchestra, led by Joel Fram, is flawless and brought to my attention details I had not heard in any other recording or production of the show. The costumes by Candice Donnelly are a visual feast of period confections. The set by Nancy Thun is a mixed success. While a trifle flimsy (leading to some wobbly moments during scene changes), it creates a highly theatrical world resembling sets and stagecraft from the late 19th/early 20th centuries and echoes that design in the various theaters, both 'real' and toy, that appear throughout the musical. The final image of curtain after curtain descending upon the characters as the orchestra plays the final notes of the sumptuous score is breathtaking indeed.
On a side note: the title to A Little Night Music's most popular song, "Send In The Clowns" is especially appropriate given the tragedies our country has been facing recently, as it is the phrase uttered by circus folk to call for a distraction whenever a horrific accident has occurred. To help combat the tragedy with aid both financial and spiritual, the cast and crew of A Little Night Music have extended their run by an extra performance, with 100% of the ticket sales revenue being donated to the American Red Cross. The extra performance will occur at 7pm on Sunday, October 14. Tickets are $25 and seating will be general admission. For more information, visit either 5th Avenue's website, 5thavenuetheatre.org, or ACT's www.acttheatre.org.