Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Though the narrative never really jells and the choreography is uneven (some is thrilling and imaginative, some dull and ordinary), it's easy to forgive Transcendence because, in the words of Robert Browning, "a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?" With Those Dancin' Feet, they have set themselves a lofty goal, and though they don't quite reach it, the singers and (especially) dancers are so skilled and focused, the production so smooth, and the entire experience (location, food, wine, logistics) so pleasant that even a disjointed, confusing attempt at narrative can't spoil an evening under the stars in Sonoma's Valley of the Moon.
Director/choreographer Roy Lightner has teamed with costume designer Kristina Martin to help keep the characters straight: one couple (four people: two singers, two dancers) is clad mostly in blue, another mostly in creamy greens, and another in black and burgundy. The two single characters each have their own color scheme also. But the problem with the show is not that's it's confusing and hard to follow. It's confusing and hard to follow because there is no real throughline: it's simply a collection of scenes depicting moments within relationships: the meet-cutes, the clumsy first dates, the moment love happens, weddings, etc. Though some of these moments are charming and lovingly performed, they don't hold together any better than the idyllic scenes one might find in a 30-second ad for a medication to treat erectile dysfunction or irritable bowel syndrome.
There is no dialogue, only the songs and (usually) their lyrics. But that doesn't mean there isn't a narrative, or at least an attempt at one. In "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," we see several women prepping for a night on the town. Later, during Fergie's "A Little Party Never Killed Nobody," the cast plays the roles of dancers at a nightclub where there is a bit of conflict between one of the couples: he's drinking a little too much, and she's not having any of it. In "It Only Takes a Moment," from Hello, Dolly!, we see the moment two of the couples get engaged. These are probably the best examples of the song serving the narrative, but elsewhere in the show, odd choices are made. Kelly Clarkson's "Broken & Beautiful" is a lovely song, and the cast's performance is among the most moving of the night, but I'm not sure the characters' arcs to that point truly justify its inclusion. And I have no idea why "I'm Alive" (from the musical Next to Normal) was chosen to start act two. Even though the song is done as an instrumental, anyone who knows the show knows it's sung by the ghost of the lead character's dead son, appearing to her as an hallucination brought on by her bi-polar disorder. Perhaps they thought few would make the same connection I did, and just loved the song's energy and drive (as I do).
Surprisingly (since the show is, after all, Those Dancin' Feet), the choreography can be very hit and miss. At times it's exciting and creativeas in the dance that accompanies "When Your Mind's Made Up" from Once, involving tables hoisted and flipped in perfect synchrony with the dancers moving over and under thembut other times the steps are flat and uninspired (though the 1930s feel of "De-Lovely," especially the tap work, is de-lightful). Despite this, the dancers themselves do a terrific job with what they are given. Whether it's spectacular or mundane, they put their full selves into every stepwhich goes a long way toward making even ordinary choreography thrilling to watch.
Another point in the show's favor is that the Transcendence experience is as close to perfection as ever. The location is delightful (the Winery Ruins at Jack London State Park), the logistics cover every detail with efficiency, and every member of the staff (and there are many) are hospitable and sincerely grateful for your attendance.
One last point: during one of the numbers there is a moment when one of the women dancers sneaks up behind a male dancer and cups his butt with both hands, then scampers away, giggling at her naughtiness. In the #MeToo era, no producer in their right mind would play such a scene if the roles were reversed, so why is it OK for a woman to intrude into a man's intimate space? Answer, it's notand I'm surprised it was included in the show, and just as surprised the audience laughed. (Though they may in the moment after the laughter died down have had the same thought I did.)
If love is indeed a dance, Transcendence has made some marvelous spins and dips with Those Dancin' Feet, but they also occasionally trod on my toes.
Those Dancin' Feet, through August 25, 2019, Winery Ruins at Jack London State Park, 2400 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen CA. Performances are Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings at 7:30pm. Tickets range from $49-$154. The top ticket includes VIP parking, two glasses of wine, and admission to the pre-show lounge. Tickets and additional information can be found at www.TranscendenceTheatre.org.