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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Bradley Rapier (on table) with the cast.
Photo by Levi Walker.

"Life is a dance, so dance beautifully." Whether this dictum, which is prominently repeated during Groovaloo Freestyle, applies to the eclectic evening that just opened at the Union Square Theatre, is greatly a matter of personal taste. For those who think that ballet is as breathtaking as dancing gets, the hip-hop, breakdancing, and air-slicing styles on display here will not be pageant finalists. The spoken sections, although well-intentioned, will also win no awards. But for pure, direct-current passion, the kids in the show are hard to beat - and just as difficult to resist.

Conceived by Danny Cistone (who also directed) and Bradley Rapier in collaboration with the cast, the 90-minute flaming-footwork festival celebrates both the art and the heart of street dance as filtered through its front-line interpreters. Its 10 primary cast members relate how the art beckoned, and encouraged them to express themselves in the moment rather than waiting for someone else to feed them steps. And, of course, they demonstrate their evolution to (or succumbing to) this state of motion-centricity. In those ways, Groovaloo Freestyle often plays and sounds like an uninhibited, urbanized A Chorus Line. In others, not so much.

Its explorations of poverty, parents who didn't understand, and the specters of personal and societal expectations are so generic, in fact, that you'll remember only the more vivid departures from the norm. Rapier was on track to become a doctor, but knew one day in an operating theater that the medical life was not for him. Al Star (Kendra Andrews) was classically instructed and disciplined, but inept at freestyling her first dozen times out. The most moving tale is that of BoogieMan (Steven Stanton), who was shot one night at a club and told he would never walk - let alone dance - again. The cane he uses for much of the evening underscores this, but - well, won't he probably shed it eventually?

Their stories all take on considerably more distinction once they actively kick up their heels - and most other imaginable body parts - to show that they practice what they preach. Numbers about the harrowing natures of auditions, living up to a father's dreams (as represented in a challenge-tap mirror number), and making a warehouse lunch break far more musical than it has any right to be, are young, unpolished ideas. But they're shiningly executed, and more than sufficient showcases for the undeniably talented cast to work out their coruscating kinetic vision of how to overcome life's little obstacles. So dynamic are they, you wish the stereotypically graffiti-strewn set (Laura Fine Hawkes was the design consultant, Toons One the painter) and headache-inducing lighting (Charlie Morrison) represented as original a vision.

Particularly effective is the climactic number, "The Circle," in which the ensemble-prone company finally gathers to strut their stuff for their compatriots. It's where, for them, the magic is made - it's where Rapier sheds the shackles of the healing industry he never wanted to join, Al Star transcends her training to speak from her own soul, and BoogieMan meets his destiny (in more ways than one). It's also where the lesser-represented performers get chances to dazzle, with some whose angular moves openly repudiate gravity and one young man who spins on his head - perfectly, as far as I could tell - for the better part of 30 seconds.

It's all astonishing, no doubt. But is it beautiful? In terms of its outward appearance, not really. The kids' connections to their souls, however, are as attractive as they can be, and are what make the best case for Groovaloo Freestyle as both a labor of love and a work of worthy - and often energizing - theatre.

Through January 13
Union Square Theatre, 100 East 17th Street between Park Avenue and Irving Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster

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