Since beginning my visits as a critic to Stratford in 2003, how delighted I am to report the unqualified success of director-choreographer Donna Feore’s revisioning of Michael Bennett’s masterpiece of dance theatre.
All of the components have come together like never before. It is a tribute to Feore’s inventiveness with and understanding of the skill sets (many of which are extraordinary) of the 30-member troupe that pays off in spades. The star of the show most certainly is the ensemble whose enthusiasm and desire to bring down the house is so infectious that the entire audience was immediately swept up in the event and seldom wavered from admiring the result.
It’s hard to imagine a better venue than the Festival Theatre where the orchestra is necessarily hidden in the rafters and the thrust stage is ideally situated to make believers of one and all that we are on Broadway where dance auditions are underway in earnest and where more than two dozen hopefuls must be whittled down to a mere eight.
The book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante artfully employs the tryouts to run virtually the whole gamut of what drives desperate artists (“I need a job”) to take a huge gamble on working in the business (in today’s hurry-up world, some of the non-musical dialogues would benefit from tightening). Along the tortuous route of self-confessions—ably drawn out by stage director Zach (Juan Chioran outdoes his film counterpart, Michael Douglas, in both the humanity and hoofing up a storm files), the subject matter covers everything from bullying to wet dreams through breast size, awkward homelife and homosexuality. The only false notes (heard some 40 years after the première) are the excessive use of the F-word where a few more “screw yous” would make the same point just as well.
Conductor Laura Burton does a masterful job driving the orchestra through Marvin Hamlisch’s melodic and rhythmically vibrant score (so familiar to me, having conducted the orchestral highlight suite dozens and dozens of times with the Nepean Symphony Orchestra in various concert halls and the ever-popular Pops in the Parks summer series).
Michael Gianfrancesco’s deceptively simple design is, in fact, a miracle of mirrors, literally setting the bar for the dancers as they learn their roles then turn to face the music (and Zach’s critical eye). Michael Walton doesn’t shy away from putting the audience in the spotlight with detail-rich/revealing lighting plot (the snow is especially fine).
But it really is the big dance numbers that time after time provide the wow factor. “Opening: I Hope I Get It,” allows Feore to aptly show off her almost excessive riches, carving out special moments for those who move above their weight (notably Jason Sermonia and his “chien chaud” routines that are deaf to the direction “stop”; newcomer Matt Nethersole immediately demonstrates his triple-threat capabilities with every step into the limelight). Julia McLellan is another wonderful find (unforgettable in “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” with its ever-so-saucy “tits and ass” theme). Cynthia Smithers creates a marvellously nuanced Diana; “What I Did for Love,” being an emotional highlight.
Of course, the tune hundreds of patrons were humming, whistling or trying to remember the lyrics of is “One.” Heard numerous times (and setting the stage for “Tap Dance” where Feore finally solves the unevenness of company tap skills by outfitting the group with less revealing rubber soles), the number’s payoff comes with the bows, where top hats abound and—a fitting metaphor for this production—all that glitters is most empathically gold. JWR