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