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A CurtainUp Review
Ten Cents a Dance
Editor's Note: John Dyle's latest performer/musician piece Ten Cents a Dance reviewed by me during its Williamstown Theatre premiere has now danced its way to the Berlind Theater of the production's co-sponsor the McCarter Center in Princeton, New Jersey where it will run through October 9th.

Except for one cast change — Elisa Wintr no plays Miss Jones One— the show our New Jersey critic Simon Saltzman saw is the same as the one I reviewed and that review is theerefore re-posted below. However, herewith some comments from Simon which pretty much puts both of us on the same page:

Ten Cents a Dance is a musical that you want to like, try hard to like, and sometimes even may think you are, indeed, liking it a little, but ultimately come to the conclusion that liking is not enough and definitely a far cry from loving. But what is there not to love about a musical tied together by memorable vintage songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart? The answer is in who has done the tying and who is doing the trying to make something special or significant out of thirty or so basically unrelated songs.

John Doyle"s concept to have the performers play their own musical instruments was fresh, frisky and full of surprises in Company and Sweeney Todd, not the least of which was the instrumental proficiency of performers we previously simply knew as terrific actors and singers. Ten Cents a Dance is unmistakably a minor invention relying on an already tired gimmick to make it work. That the songs are also irrevocably compromised by some singing that is okay, but not great and often accompanied by less than proficient instrumental accompaniment, is not in its favor.

Doyle can claim credit for the original premise of Ten Cents a Dance and for inventing the central fictional character Johnny, read that “Johnny One-Note,” who may be either an entertainer or a composer or neither or both, has evidently returned to his old haunt. He makes his way ever so slowly down a metal spiral staircase that leads to the basement of a presumably defunct nightclub. Musical instruments of all kinds are hanging or leaning against the walls in states of repose – an impressively atmospheric, impressionistic setting designed by Scott Pask. Johnny walks over to the piano that he gently fondles as if he and it have a past. He sits and begins to play a few notes. Apparently conjured up by his tickling of the keys and the first notes of “Blue Moon,” are the five Miss Joneses make the slow descent down the staircase not unlike the ghosts that haunt the old theater about to be demolished in the Stephen Sondheim musical Follies.

Whether the songs that follow which virtually defined the early golden years of American musical theater sufficiently define either Johnny or any of the Miss Joneses is another matter, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. If the books of most of R & H shows have not held up well, their songs continue to hold a special place in our individual and collective consciousness as well as in our attitudes about romantic love and loss. Because R & H’s theater songs rarely were concerned with moving the plot along, they have been contrived to conform to Doyle’s format.

Ultimately Ten Cents a Dance is neither a revue in the traditional sense nor is it a book musical with a plot, but rather a hybrid. We do suspect by watching Gets’s mostly glazed-over gaze that he is in his own world, but we are privy to his imagination at work as the stage quickly becomes the playground for The Misses Jones who under Doyle’s direction fiddle and toot, blow and bang away on a variety of instruments as they also parade about, pose and preen for Johnny’s amusement. I only suspect by his expression or lack of one, that he is not amused.

While each Miss Jones shines in her own light (the lighting by Jane Cox is exceptional and a major factor in producing the right atmospherics) and is often seen presiding over a song. The staging is enhanced by the occasional use of a revolving platform and some moments when the Miss Joneses are captured in a freeze during Johnny’s dream-like transitions. But as one wonders what it would have taken Miss Jones to make this Johnny smile. More importantly, what would it take to make an audience think this was a show with nothing more than thirty songs in its heart?

Performances at the McCarter Theater Center Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 PM; Fridays at 8 PM; Saturdays at 3 and 8 PM; Sundays at 2 and 7:30 PM. Above comments by Simon Saltzman based on performance 09/16/11

Elyse Sommer's Review of Ten Cents a Dance at Williamstown

Now I'm No Longer Alone
Without a Love of My Own
— a line from "Blue Moon" as sung by Johnny during one of his more upbeat moods.
Ten Cents a Dance
left to right: Jessica Tyler Wright, Malcolm Gets, Lauren Molina in a scene from Ten Cents A Dance
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
The latest Doylization of the musical genre applies his streamlined approach to the song cycle of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart. Unlike his terrific use of having the actors double as instrumentalists in Company and Sweeney Todd, both book musicals by Stephen Sondheim, Ten Cents a Dance has only a sliver-sized story to release 32 Rodgers and Hart hits from their 1920s and 1930s time capsule.

And what hits they are! To name just the best known: " Blue Moon". . . "Poor Johnny One Note". . . " Isn't It Romantic". . . "Where or When". . . "My Funny Valentine". . . "We'll Have Manhattan". . . "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered". . . "Sing for Your Supper". . ."The Lady Is a Tramp". . ."With a Song In My Heart". . ."I Didn't Know What Time It Was". . .and the song from which this show takes its title, "Ten Cents a Dance."

But can even a super talented actor-musician ensemble dishing up this generous sampling from an iconic musical songwriting team add up to a full meal? Is labellng it as a musical a stretch?

For musical theater purists, I suppose the answer is no. Even the award-winning and very satisfying Sondheim à la Doyle Company and Sweeney Todd had its detractors. But for anyone open minded enough to embrace a less traditional approach to the genre, this American premiere (a major revision of a previous production at Doyle's Waterwell Company in Great Britain) will be well worth the more than ten cents a ticket to this dance will cost them — that's even though it features neither dancing or a conventional book.

Don't let that Ten Cents a Dance title fool you though. Instead of dancing, you'll get choreographed movements. Those movements and the lyrics of the carefully arranged songs are all you need to know about the central male character, a man named Johnny (Malcolm Gets) and the five women in look-alike gowns and wigs who move around the piano where he spends most of his stage time tickling the ivories and singing. Johnny's body language, as well as the changing mood of the songs and Jane Cox's lighting, provide additional clues to this moody musical memory story Mr. Doyle has concocted.

The gossamer light narrative framework on which the songs are hung revolves around the singer-pianist who enters the stage visibly depressed, and when he sits down at the piano conjures up images from his longtime romance with a taxi dancer named Miss Jones, with each member of the female ensemble portraying a different stage of that romance. Except for Donna McKechnie, there's no age distinction between the women; but then, this isn't a chronological story which is structured around the grouping of the songs (Five Episodes entitled (The Blue Room, Isn't It Romantic, Manhattan, Ten Cents a Dance, Quiet Night), plus an Encore.

The performances are outstanding. I've come to know Malcolm Gets as an accomplished singer and actor. He now proves himself to be an accomplished pianist. While the various Miss Joneses, all of whom have experience with Doyle's unusual concept, wouldn't pass an audition for either the Boston Symphony or Boston Pops concerts at Tanglewood, they gamely and quite ably play a variety of instruments (trumpet, clarinet, string bass, cello, viola, violin, triangle, drums, saxophones). Donna McKetchnie, a seasoned musical star but new to the Doyle style and apparently lacking girlhood instrument playing lessons to reactivate, gets into the spirit with a triangle. At one point she even joins in a group trumpet riff.

The songs, including some of the less familiar ones, are a feast for the ears. All these assets notwithstanding, Ten Cents a Dance isn't quite on a par with Company or Sweeney Todd and some of the choices by Doyle and his design team left me more bothered and bewildered than bewitched.

Since the shows on which Rodger and Hart worked didn't always have books worthy of their songs or would be dated today, so it's understandable to want to give audiences a chance to look for a new way to experience them. The 2008 Broadway revival of Pal Joey had a brand-new book by Richard Greenberg. For Doyle new meant dreaming up a way to incorporate a large chunk of their song cycle into a single show.

Mr. Doyle has taken this original new form to a level that's more than a way of dealing with a small budget (though that's what prompted this format at his tiny, low budget company). However, I found his story a bit too reminiscent of Company, which in turn kicked up other comparisons. Like Sondheim's commitment phobic Bobby, Doyle's Johnny too has relationship problems which are echoed in his rendition of "Have You Met Miss Jones" which includes this line: "you're a girl who understands that I'm a man who must be free." In a later Episode, there's even a Bobby-like epiphany.

To take the comparison between Ten Cents a Dance and the Sondheim productions a step further — even with a more substantial book and beautiful as the Rodgers and Hart songs are, their appeal is mostly nostalgic. Listening to them prompts comments of "they don't write them like that any more." On the other hand Sondheim's edgy music continues to inspire young musical theater practitioners.

As long as I'm quibbling, while set designer Scott Pask certainly can't be accused of not filling out the WTF's high main stage, the second level's giant cello case and piled up chairs don't really serve much purpose and that huge circular staircase isn't exactly a never before seen Wow! A very similar staircase was a pivotal scenic element in Nine, another musical about a troubled central male character and the women in his life. On the other hand, the staircase as a dominant prop does fit since it was also used to lead to the speakeasy setting in the above mentioned Pal Joey revival.

Also for the thumbs down department: Ann Hould-Ward, who has done superior costume work for Company as well as many other shows, has created remarkably unattractive gowns for the Miss Joneses. Perhaps this wouldn't warrant a mention if this was an isolated costume instead of the only costume but multiplied by five.

Finally, there's Mr. Doyle direction of Malcolm Gets. I realize that the oh so slow descent down that circular staircase and the long silent pause before Gets finally heads for the piano are designed to establish the picture of a man who's not happy in the present and needs to review his past before moving on with his life — but this isn't a Pinter play! As for having Gets shed his jacket and roll up his sleeves and finally wind up in his undershirt, this seemed another needlessly overcooked way of bringing us closer to the inner Johnny.

While Mr. Doyle has directed his share of more traditionally structured musicals, it's his exploration of multi-tasking small cast musicals that have burnished his reputation to the point where his use of this technique is a matter of choice rather than necessity. Still, with the economy everywhere in dire straits and artistic directors faced with ever tighter budgets, the appeal of a musical that doesn't call for large cast and band salaries is likely to improve Ten Cents a Dance's chances to have a life after WTF and the follow-up run at the Mc Carter Theater in Princeton.

Production Notes
Ten Cents a Dance
Conceived and directed by John Doyle
Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Lorenz Hart
Produced in association with McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, NJ
Cast: Malcolm Gets (Johnny), Lauren Molina (Miss Jones 1), Jane Pfitsch (Miss Jones 2), Jessica Tyler Wright (Miss Jones 3), Diana DiMarzio (Miss Jones 4),Donna McKechnie(Miss Jones 5).
Musical director and orchestrator: Mary-Mitchell Campbell
Scenic design: Scott Pask
Costumes: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting: Jane Cox
Sound Design/Composer: Dan Moses-Schreier
Wigs: Paul Huntley
Movement Consultant: Dontee Kiehn
Stage Manager: Eileen Kelly
August 11 to August 28 2011
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 8/14/11 performance Share
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