Thursday, September 15, 2011

theatre review TEN CENTS A DANCE, McCarter Theatre, Sept.11

Musical revues aren't usually my cup of tea.  I need a story or at least some type of theme to keep me entertained.  And while I enjoyed previous revues like Ain't Misbehaven' and Smokey Joe's Cafe, to me they are simply a couple of hours of musical fluff, hardly filling and sometimes in the case of other ill conceived revues like The Look of Love, they are barely filling at all.

So I went into the new revue of Richards Rodgers and Lorenz Hart songs, Ten Cents a Dance, with reservations.  This production was previously staged at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in August and is enjoying a month long run at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton.  While the "story" of this show is somewhat bare bones, and could be interpreted in various ways, it is one that makes you think and one that I'm still thinking about several days later. So, while i did enjoy it, I think it still needs some additional work to give it slightly more focus before moving on to future productions.

Malcom Gets and the five "Miss Jones' "
The director of this piece, John Doyle, is best known for his Broadway revival productions of Sweeney Todd and Company, both of which used their casts also as the shows' orchestra.  Having actors also play instruments can be a gimmick that wears old very fast but Doyle effectively incorporated the actor's use of the instruments seamlessly into both of those shows and won a Tony for Best Director for his work on Sweeney Todd.   Having the cast also play instruments in this production actually works even better than those two previous works mainly because since the show is a revue, it's pretty much non stop music.

Ten Cents a Dance has a cast of six people, one man and five women.  When the show begins, the man (Malcolm Gets) slowly descends into the room down a spiral staircase.  The room below is somewhat dark but has various smaller spaces all around the back that are all filed with musical instruments with a grand piano in the center of the room.  The man almost doesn't want to approach the piano at first, as if he is afraid of what will happen if he begins to play.  But when he does sit down and plays, you know he's been here before and that what unfolds has happened before, maybe even many times, but he is still afraid of what is going to happen once his fingers hit the piano keys.

Donna McKechnie, Diana DiMarzio, Jessica Tyler Wright,
Jane Pfitsch and Lauren Molina
As he begins to play the Rodgers and Hart classic "Blue Moon," a procession of five women slowly descend the staircase.  The women are various ages, from around 20 to 60 and all wear slightly different versions of the same dress and a slightly different version of the same hairstyle.  They obviously only appear because he started to play, and I assumed they represented one woman at various stages in her life.  If he stops playing, they stop moving.  Over the next 80 minutes they will harmonize, play a multitude of instruments and take us through the various stages of a relationship, or should I say the relationship that they as the one woman had with the man.  We don't know what happened or how the relationship ended, or if in fact the woman died and left the man a widow, or even if they are both dead.  But what I took away was that the man is still alive and when he plays the piano he imagines the woman from his past that he can't forget coming to life and playing out what happened in their days together through the music they shared.  It isn't something he completely enjoys reliving, but something it seems he must do.   As I mentioned above, it isn't exactly clear, and I don't even know if my interpretation is what Doyle is thinking, but for me it ultimately is a haunting musical.  In many ways it reminded me of Follies, which we just saw last week, and the visions of younger ghosts and memories of the past are prominent in both shows.

Molina and McKechnie
Now Rodgers and Hart wrote some of the most romantic songs from the 30's and 40's from such shows as Pal Joey, Babes in Arms and On Your Toes and many of them are heard in this production.  Almost every song in this production is about romance, and while overall they combine to make an effective show, the continued use of some of the more heavier ballads become a little monotonous after awhile.  Classic tunes like "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," "My Funny Valentine," Isn't It Romantic," "Manhattan," "The Lady is a Tramp," "Falling In Love With Love," " This Can't Be Love"  and "I Wish I Were in Love Again" are all heard, some in complete versions, some shortened ones or combined with other songs.  "Have You Met Miss Jones" is effectively used to introduce the five Miss Jones' that the five women play.  Every time the lyrics "Miss Jones" appears in the song our five women sing those words in unison.

The cast is more than capable of not only singing the material but playing various instruments.  While Gets mainly only plays the piano, his playing is rapturous and emotional.  And, like the rest of the cast, he so encompasses his character that you completely feel for him and for whatever happened to him and Miss Jones  The five women while given somewhat less to do then Gets, also pour everything they have into their parts.  Donna McKechnie is the star here, having won a Tony award for her performance in the original cast of A Chorus Line.  She is the eldest of the five "Miss Jones" and Doyle often has her close to whichever woman is singing a solo, and many times McKechnie mouths the words to the song the other woman is singing, to show that she remembers that moment in her life.  It is a very effective directorial choice.  The rest of the women, while being better musicians than McKenchie, are still very good singers.  Lauren Molina as the youngest of the Miss Jones' perfectly captures the youth and joy of love while Diana DiMarzio, Jessica Tyler Wright and Jane Pfitsch  as the middle Miss Jones' show more raw emotions around the pain of love.  McKechnie seems more resolved and even joyous, not only at seeing and singing with Gets but also at looking at her younger selves and so it seems she has gotten over and accepted whatever happened between her and Gets. 

The set is pretty amazing
Now there are a few things that I think need to be clarified before this moves on.  There is practically no dialogue in the piece, and I think adding just a few lines to give us a better sense of the story would be effective.  Dialogue might also help better connect the show with the audience.  There are also many moments of silence with Gets staring broodingly at the piano, or even at the women, that come across as somewhat melodramatic.  And I'm not sure why he disrobes a few times in the show, first taking off his coat, then his vest, then his shirt.  It seems like he is either frustrated, disappointed or just hot, but these moments do nothing but put a puzzled look on the audience's faces.

Still, Ten Cents a Dance is a haunting musical, with lush arrangements, an extremely talented cast and superb direction by Doyle. So, even with it's couple of shortcomings, I'd recommend it for the slightly more adventurous theatre goers out there. The show is playing though October 9th.

McCarter Theatre Site

Behind the scenes with the cast before the Williamstown production:

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