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Heat Wave: The Jack Cole Project

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

David Elder with Jena VanElslander, Lindsay Roginski, and Kristin Piro
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Temperature words in show titles can be dangerous if the evening's content can't live up to them. This is, alas, the prevailing circumstance with Heat Wave: The Jack Cole Project. Chet Walker's new tribute to the esteemed but largely forgotten Broadway and Hollywood choreographer of the 1940s, '50s, and '60s is packed with potential, artistry, and talent. But this retrospective that just opened at the Queens Theatre in the Park and reportedly has eyes on Broadway does not scorch. That's not to say it chills, either, but the bare simmer it maintains throughout is hardly enough to get you excited.

This is surprising primarily because Cole's reputation remains white hot. The man credited with establishing what many today consider the "Broadway style," and who didn't shy away from either explosive sex or ethnic invocations aplenty while crafting dances for the likes of Something for the Boys, Kismet, and Man of La Mancha on Broadway and a string of also-ran film musicals (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes being a better-known exception), should be ripe for a salute like this. And to introduce new generations to his work for the first time could, in theory, go a long way to reviving the mostly moribund state of contemporary Broadway dance.

But like Fosse, the 1999 revue that Walker also helped sire and choreograph, Heat Wave can be tentative and reverential to a fault. Although loaded with nearly 30 numbers, a vast array of colorful and clingy costumes (by Brad Musgrove), and a top-notch dancing corps led by David Elder and Rachelle Rak, it's almost entirely lacking meaningful context. As is the case with all great choreographers, what distinguished Cole was not so much the steps as the attitude and logic behind them. And, when quantity is the goal, there's not time to mine enough of that for the outing to be either deeply enlightening or entertaining. The result is an enterprise that is unquestionably pretty, but also fundamentally pointless.

Part of the problem is the numbers themselves; barring a few gleaming standouts (the Irving Berlin title tune, Louis Prima's "Sing Sing Sing," the Gershwins' "Someone to Watch Over Me," and a trio of George Forrest and Robert Wright's Kismet songs), there's not a ton of memorable material on hand. Only one exclusive stage show is represented (the 1953 flop Carnival in Flanders); everything else is the films, and their not being a banner crop does not lead to your easy engagement by their lyrical or melodic content.

Rachelle Rak and the company
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Sure, Cole peppered them with provocative cocked elbows, sinewy sensuousness throughout every torso, and a strong underpinning of steam propulsion. But the devotion to drama is missing in so many of the extractable specialties Walker has chosen that what's important or noteworthy about any of these spots is only intermittently clear. Even when you like what you see, it doesn't captivate you—it's all disconnected, more dutiful than beautiful.

Had Walker merely strung bits and pieces together for a half hour or so, it might fly. What's here, however, struggles mightily to fill two and a half hours, despite occasional read-aloud quotes by and about such luminaries as Ann Miller, Alfred Drake, and Gwen Verdon that stress Cole's devotion and erotic innovation. We can't just hear about this stuff—we need to see and feel it, and most of the time we don't because the precise technical photocopying is all there is, and that alone simply isn't enough to convey the pounding passion Cole strove for. The hard-bodied cast members, who are movement-dazzling but personality-dim, unfortunately don't help.

The best moments are those that are the most self-contained: "Sing Sing Sing," as used in a club act, and the Carnival in Flanders's flamenco-flavored "Spanish Trio." Nadine Isenegger comes the closest to personally stopping the show with "I'm Gonna See My Baby" (Eadie Was a Lady, 1945) and the saucy "Brother to a Mule" (The Thrill of Brazil, 1946). Lindsay Roginski doesn't bother mimicking Marilyn Monroe (from 1954's There's No Business Like Show Business) in the Berlin, which is wise, though she's perfectly pleasant on her own terms. Elder sparkles most singing, particularly Kismet's "Night of My Nights" and "Fate," and Rak brings some brash brass to the brightly bitchy "Bettin' on a Man" (Meet Me After the Show, 1951).

Everything else, if not dire, is sadly not electric. Walker hasn't yet mastered translating film dance, which (as with so much in the medium) often exists as much in the editing as it does in the hoofers' feet, to live performance, and would do well to place some extra focus on spicing up much of it. And a cleverer ordering of the bits, so as to better highlight the relationships between the individual pieces of choreography and their progression either throughout Cole's career or the emotions he created them to express, would make them collectively seem more like a theatrical necessity than the half-conceived cut-and-paste job they currently do.

What the show needs most of all is someone to resurrect Cole within the dancers' hearts and heads. Recreating the steps is clearly not much of a challenge for them (they're so good, you're sure they could do all this in their sleep), but proving to us there's a concrete reason for what they're performing would make their accomplishments notably more significant. If Walker really wants to reignite Cole's genius today, he will only succeed by demonstrating what made him different from everyone else before or since. Because that's not to be found only in the feet, it may be more difficult and time-consuming to unlock. But without it, Heat Wave: The Jack Cole Project will never truly sizzle.

Heat Wave: The Jack Cole Project
Through May 20
Queens Theatre, 14 United Nations Avenue South, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens
Tickets online and current schedule: Queens Theatre

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