Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
History Theatre partnered with Collide Theatrical Dance Company to create Dance 'Til You Drop, now having its world premiere run. Though History Theatre draws this musical from its Minnesota ties, it is not a "Minnesota" story in the strict sense, but a universal one. It is about human drive and resilience, and the extremes to which people can push themselves. It is also about the human capacity to draw entertainment out of the anguish of others, a forerunner to our reality TV craze. Dance 'Til You Drop is a powerful, emotionally compelling show and, in an ironic twist, is also great entertainment, featuring wonderful choreography beautifully executed by members of Collide Theatrical Dance Company, who also prove themselves skilled actors.
Dance marathons were not "So You Think You Can Dance" affairs, with contestants judged on the form of their dance steps, but sheer battles of endurance. Sure, in the opening hours and days the eager couples danced with all the grace and élan they could muster, but as days turned to weeks, and weeks to months, "dancing," as it is usually considered, went out the window. All that was required was for the couples to stay on their feet and continue moving. Sleep? There were hourly fifteen minute rest breaks, reduced to five minutes after a couple of months had passed, or else couples took turns sleeping on their feet as their partner held them upright and dragged them across the dance floor.
Dance 'Til You Drop has a framing device in which we meet Callum deVillier in 1969 at his St. Louis Park barbershop, the career he eventually settled into. A customer asks him about the trophy displayed in his shop, and the rest of the show is told in flashback. We meet young Cal and Vonnie, his landlord's daughter, who pair up and ride the bus from Minnesota to Massachusetts. Aside from Cal and Vonnie, the play presents five other couples who represent the many marathon contestants. Vera and Dave are sophisticates, dressed to the nines and claiming to be headed to Hollywood where stardom awaits. Junie and Red had a successful vaudeville act, shut down by the Depression. Shannon and Jack are Detroit factory workers and union organizers. Annie and Steve are a pair of eager newlyweds, and Daisy and George are a local couple who fear they are in over their heads when they get a look at the competition.
The marathon is overseen by a bombastic Emcee, oozing false cheer and earnest commercialism. The grim Floor Judge roams among the couples, quick to toss those who fail to sufficiently lift their feet, step over the dance floor boundary, or falter in any other way. A pair of ardent audience members keep returning to the marathon, demonstrating their yearning for something to cheer for, as they pick their favorites among the couples.
We know from the onset that the Minnesota couple will be the winners, so that is no surprise, yet the drama among all the couples is gripping. Regina Peluso's choreography is not only terrific to watch, but reveals a bit about each of the characters. As the weeks and months pass, her choreography depicts the growing fatigue and anxiety as couples struggle not to succumb. Carson Kreitzer's book sheds light on each contestant, as seen on the dance floor and during the brief break periods, and depicts the machinations of the Emcee to maintain audience interest, such as throwing in a fast number to reduce the field, giving individuals a chance at a solo spot (for which they are rewarded with coins thrown by the audience), and even staging a wedding on the dance floor. The end of the marathon might have been anticlimactic, since we know who wins, but Kreitzer adds a beautifully written and performed coda, a perfect ending that lifts the spirit in spite of all that came before.
The focus throughout is on Cal and Vonnie, played by Patrick Jeffrey and Andrea Mislan. Both are fabulous dancers and skilled actors who flesh out whole characters. The couples that last longer have more time on stage, but all of the actor/dancers do wonderful work. I was especially taken by the vaudeville couple, played by Brittany Keefe and Erik Hunder. There is far more dancing in Dance 'Til You Drop than in most shows, and the stamina alone of this troupe is amazing.
Pearce Bunting plays the older Callum in the opening, then shifts gears to become the Emcee, the best performance I have ever seen him give. Bunting perfectly captures smarmy falseness and hucksterism, creating a character that stands in as a villain, though the Depression and its underlying forces are the real villain of the piece. Pedro Juan Fonseca is fearsome as the no-nonsense Floor Judge, and Jaclyn Juola and Brittany Parker amuse as the two prattling audience members.
Bunting sings some of the musical numbers, switching off with smoky-voiced vocalist Katie Gearty, accompanied by a solid five-piece band led by music director Doug Rohde. The program lists 23 musical numbers, including such American Songbook classics as "Stardust," "Night and Day," "Puttin' on the Ritz," and "Stairway to the Stars," and great novelty numbers like "Everybody Eats When They Come to My House" and "Shaving Cream." Near the end, a bluesy "St. James Infirmary" perfectly matches the remaining dancers, near-dead on their feet.
The set, designed by Rick Polonek, is one of the most elaborate I have seen at History Theatre, with a center platform for the Emcee and band, two side platforms backed by smoked mirrors on which dancing couples can perch, and the entire space decked out in red, white and blue bunting as if there is something innately patriotic about watching people with no other means of support push themselves to the outer limit of their endurancealbeit, they do it not for the sake of their country, but to make it through another year. Amelia Cheever's bright costumes help to keep track of which couple is which. Merritt Rodriguez's lighting design shows the garishness of the event, but shifts the tone as needed, such as when the dancers leave the floor for their brief respites.
Dance 'Til You Drop is a show for people who love dance, for people with an interest in how our nation has weathered past hard times, and for people who are moved by the enormous capacity of human will and spirit. I see no reason this show shouldn't play across the country, but we in the Twin Cities are the lucky able to see it first, with a cast perfectly matched to the material. Whether you measure it as entertainment or art, Dance 'Til You Drop is a winner.
Dance 'Til You Drop, through April 15, 2018, at History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: Adults: $30.00 - $40.00; Seniors (age 60 and up): $27.00 - $35.00; Students 5 - 18: $15.00; Adults under Age 30 discount available at the box office. For tickets call 651-292-4323 or go to historytheatre.com.
Writer: Carson Kreitzer, created in collaboration with Collide Theatrical Dance Company; Director: Anya Kremenetsky; Choreography: Regina Peluso; Music Director: Doug Rhodes; Scenic Design: Rick Polonek; Costume Design: Amelia Cheever; Lighting Design: Merritt Rodriguez; Sound Designer: Josh Stallings; Properties Designer: Lee Christiansen; Dramaturg: Peg Meier; Stage Manager: Lisa Smith; Assistant Stage Managers: Rachael Rhoades and Janet L. Hall.
Cast: Heather Cadigan Brockman (Vera), Pearce Bunting (Callum/Emcee), Dominick Dates (Steven), Pedro Juan Fonseca (Customer/Floor Judge/Gangster), Katie Gearty (Vocalist), Ronin Holley (George), Erik Hunder (Red), Patrick Jeffrey (Cal), Jaclyn Juola (Betsey/Nurse), Brittany Keefe (Junie), Cameron Meilicke (Dave), Andrea Mislan (Vonnie), Brittany Parker (Enid/Church Lady), Nicole Riebe (Annie), Chelsea Rose (Shannon), Elander Rosser (George), Katie Taintor (Daisy/Nurse).