Review: `Dame Edna: The Royal Tour’

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These reviews by Simon Saltzman were prepared for the edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 10, 1999. All rights reserved.

Broadway Review: `Contact’

Think about the dancing in the Broadway musical in

this last decade of the 20th century and you’ll think about choreographer

Susan Stroman. In "Crazy For You," she surrounded the old

Gershwin tunes with an invigorating freshness. She energized the rather

plodding "Show Boat," and she kept the dance-intoxicated company

spinning in "Steel Pier." More recently, Stroman was largely

responsible for the rapturous reception given to a newly conceived

production of "Oklahoma," seen in London but not yet in New

York. Stroman is making the kind of impact on musical theater dancing

not seen since the days of the maverick Agnes DeMille.

Without the quirky posturing and signature moves that identify so

many contemporary choreographers, Stroman’s eclecticism is expressed

through a process that unashamedly pays homage to the most accessible

elements in classic, modern, and popular dance idioms. Beyond her

affection for having objects and things play a part in the dancers’

scheme, I don’t think her work can be easily defined. What I do know

is that "Contact," a stunning program of three dance dramas

choreographed and directed by Stroman, with writer John Weidman, shows

off Stroman’s contributions to dance like nothing that she has previously

produced.

The trio of danced stories opens in a forest glade, 1767, a servant

pushes a pretty girl on a swing while an aristocrat spreads a picnic

basket. The aristocrat is obviously beguiled by the girl whose insinuating

legs are sent flying over his head like clipping scissors. His interest

in her grows more amorous as she playfully taunts him with each provocative

shift of her body. When the doting aristocrat departs to get more

champagne, the girl notices that the servant’s behavior now seems

suddenly less passive. What could be more titillating than to see

how her flirting has set in motion a wickedly funny sexual encounter

with the servant on the moving swing during the aristocrat’s absence.

Aside from the exhilarating pleasure of watching some highly erotic

acrobatics that one is not likely to see even at the Cirque du Soleil,

there is a dramatic twist at the end that is too wonderful to divulge.

A famous 18th-century painting by Fragonard ("The Swing")

is the inspiration for "Swinging." But Stroman’s naughtily

perverse interpretation of the scene, that uses a jazz score set to

the music of Rodgers and Hart, is a delight, as are dancers Sean Martin

Hingston, Stephanie Michels, and Scott Taylor.

There are wonderful beginnings, middles, and endings yet to come in

the three riveting, innovative, and sensational dance dramas that

may be hard to beat come Tony time. But the tasty little sexual dalliance

in the 18th century acts as a warm-up for two more complex pathological,

psychological, sex-driven dramas to come.

One would be remiss in not stating just how gritty and psychologically

compelling are the stories written by Weidman, the author of two of

the most mature books ever written for a musical, "Pacific Overtures"

and "Assassins," both with scores by Stephen Sondheim.

"Contact’s " second story, "Did You Move?," set in

an Italian restaurant in Queens in 1954, stars the dynamic Karen Ziemba

as the browbeaten wife of a jealous and boorish brute. While dining

out, the wife, who lives in a perpetual state of fear and loathing,

is brought close to tears by the voiced threats and humiliating behavior

of her husband, as played with steely-eyed menace by Jason Antoon.

It’s buffet night. So, whenever he leaves the room for more pasta

or rolls (a running gag), the wife lets her imagination take flight.

The gentle shift from a soft to a surreal atmosphere, as affected

by lighting designer Peter Kaczorowsky and the wittily introduced

music by Bizet, Tchaikovsky, and Grieg, sets the stage for a dream

world of an eatery. Drifting in and out of this world, as determined

by the number of the husband’s trips to the buffet table, the wife

is momentarily freed from her stifling marital bondage to emerge as

a diva of dance, a love-goddess with no inhibitions.

Ziemba, is an incomparable dancer-actor, whether appearing fiery or

funny, poignant or tough, or elegant and insecure. In this instance,

she has the chance to be all in a variety of mood and attitude changes.

For a partner, that is when she isn’t embracing the chairs, tables,

or invading the space of the other diners, the wife chooses the handsome

headwaiter, danced with the temperament of Valentino by David MacGillivray.

Stroman doesn’t forget to make the other patrons strangely fascinating,

even as they are self-involved and oblivious to the wife’s fantasy.

Although there is a rather bitter and chilling end to this story,

it is the impact of Ziemba’s performance and the dances that so hauntingly

reveal the woman inside her.

In "Contact," the third, longest, and most complex of this

trio of dramas, the time is the present. It features a haunting performance

by a superb Boyd Gaines, whose notable Broadway roles in "The

Heidi Chronicles," "Company," and "She Loves Me"

seem like warm ups, for his role as a despondent, suicidal Manhattan

advertising executive. Although the ad man is the recipient of numerous

awards in his field, he feels completely out of step with life and

disconnected to all other human beings. In his bleak, high-rise apartment,

he decides to kill himself either with a drug overdose or by hanging.

That both these attempts fail miserably provides a rather humorously

macabre prelude to his adventures in self-discovery. When he wanders

disconsolately into a swing dance club, the passion and intensity

of the habitues intrigue him. Here he watches them pair off and become

the sensuous adventurous people that by day they may not have the

heart or, indeed, the need, to be. The ad man returns night after

night and finds comfort in a corner of the bar where he is befriended

and encouraged to participate by the bartender, played with a variety

of wise looks by the versatile Antoon.

The catch is a girl in a yellow dress, an aloof but sexy blonde who

arrives mysteriously each night and will only dance with the most

attractive and dangerous of the men. Although he can’t dance, the

ad man dares to imagine that the girl he has become hopelessly infatuated

with, would not only notice him but dance with him. This paves the

way for a series of humorous and humiliating false starts to their

inevitable relationship. Tall, icily beautiful, with a pair of what

used to be called "million-dollar legs", Deborah Yates is

the girl. She is bound to remind some of dancing film star Cyd Charisse,

who had a similarly stunning beauty (although she was a brunette)

and technique.

At first cool, then curious, then compelled by the ad man’s persistence

to take him on the floor, she coaxes him little by little to find

the dancer in his soul. It doesn’t take long for the dancers’ jealousies,

rivalries, and their personal neurosis to externalize. These flood

the dance floor, as Stroman’s increasingly frenzied and fabulous routines,

set to familiar music from the swing era, take these sets of intimate

strangers to the heights of their hedonistic displays. Even more impressive

is there isn’t a dancer in the crowd that Stroman’s fails to give

a life with past. Weidman’s story ends with twist worthy of O. Henry.

All three dance dramas have the benefit of Thomas Lynch’s cleverly

stylized settings and William Ivey Long’s stylishly clever costumes.

All three dance dramas take us to a world where the word has less

power than a look, a gesture, a posture, or a swinging torso. HHHH

— Simon Saltzman

Contact, Mitzi Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center. $60.

Through January 2. Moves to the Vivian Beaumont Theater, beginning

March 9. For tickets, Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

Top Of Page
Review: `Dame Edna: The Royal Tour’

"Janet Reno wants me to do a makeover. She wants me to bring out

her hidden femininity," says Dame Edna, in a manner so candid

and with such sincerity it could serve as a lesson in misplaced diplomacy.

Yet it was not a celebrity, but rather a Princeton couple in tenth

row center aisle seats that bore the brunt of many of Dame Edna’s

scabrous barbs on the night that I attended "Dame Edna: The Royal

Tour." Among the other good sports, they surely knew what they

were in for, if only having seen one of Dame Edna’s TV appearances.

After only a few more of Dame Edna’s intentionally nosy inquiries

into the affairs of others in various locations in the house, it was

evident that people had came from far and wide to be in the presence

of this endearingly egotistical "superstar."

Notwithstanding her illusions of being an investigative journalist,

chanteuse, swami, adviser to British royalty, grief counselor, spin-doctor,

and icon, Dame Edna is to be seriously considered as a force for the

millennium. How fulfilling it must feel to know you have become one

of the growing numbers of the rich, the famous, but mostly less illustrious

persons who have served as foils for Dame Edna’s now almost legendary

brand of mischievous mockery. Her self-satisfied pronouncements and

denouncements in regard to those individual close-to-home targets,

in particular, and her observations on society and propriety in general,

leave no doubt that she is an informed social anthropologist and confirmed

moralist of the first order. You’ll notice how important politicos

and glamorous showbiz celebrities play second fiddle to the more agreeably

and easily victimized at hand.

Wearing a different sequin-studded outfit for each act, supplied by

costumer Stephen Adnitt (with, Dame Edna informs us, "divine inspiration

from my darling son Kenny"), and her mauve wig teased into a formidable

steel helmet, Dame Edna could easily pass for Margaret Thatcher auditioning

for a role in "Absolutely Fabulous." To be sure, the majority

of the audience that roared with laughter almost continuously at the

self-important "Dame" from Australia, Edna Everage, would

have given anything to be singled out for ridicule.

Singled out, but not present for the purpose of sharing her own troubles,

are Dame Edna’s mother and grown children. Brief histories of her

window dresser/dress designer son who lives in Chelsea and has "so

many friends," the daughter who lives in Flatbush with a retired

Czech tennis pro of the same sex, and her mother who "lives in

a maximum security twilight home," are amusingly considered through

rose-colored glasses.

Whether Broadway will join the rest of the English-speaking world

that has succumbed to Dame Edna’s upbraiding charms remains to be

seen. Despite my initial resistance, I have to admit that I was amused,

and mercifully left alone to take notes. Taking account of Dame Edna

is actor and artist Barry Humphries, who can say that he has been

more than merely receptive to his seductively garish creation for

about 40 years. In fact, she possesses him. Under Humphries unsurprisingly

indulgent direction, Dame Edna uses her chatty rapport with various

audience members to propel what is basically a rather old-fashioned

vaudeville act. It says something about our culture that we all seem

to take great pleasure in watching pretentiousness paraded and innocence

skewered.

That Princeton couple, having once admitted to Dame Edna that they

had left a baby sitter at home with their infant, were submitted to

an on-again off-again interrogation that eventually led to an onstage

phone call directly to couple’s home. Needless to say, Dame Edna’s

conversation with the sitter, and overheard by all, left no doubt

that a certain baby-sitter’s fees will soon go up. Dame Edna’s ability

to keep a cross-current of conversations going is cause enough for

hilarity, but that she remembers the scores of first names as she

soliloquizes is amazing indeed.

In this flagrantly inane show, Dame Edna is assisted by two leggy

chorines called the "the gorgeous" Ednaettes (Roxane Barlow

and Tamlyn Brooke Shusterman), and a pianist (Andrew Ross). On those

occasions when Dame Edna’s "hands-on-magic for yourself and for

your wives, children, significant others, and same sex partners"

isn’t making you howl or crawl under your seat, she has a few musical

numbers to keep things lively. All this in Kenneth Foy’s splashy glitzy

Ziegfeldian staircase setting.

And what about the Dame’s dancing and singing? Well, if you’ve ever

been in an underground bomb shelter during the blitz when someone

in the crowd decided to help keep spirits up, then you have it. But,

you can’t escape it either, especially when Dame Edna hands out hundreds

of gladioli and rehearses her "possums" for a breathtaking,

and just slightly lewd, sing-along stand-up finale. I have to admit

that there is nothing quite like this down-under Dame. HHH

— Simon Saltzman

Dame Edna: The Royal Tour, Booth Theater, 222 West 45th

Street, New York, Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

$45 & $60.


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