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This review by Simon Saltzman published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on November 17, 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
The trio of danced stories opens in a forest glade, 1767, a servant
pushing 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)
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 hedonistic displays. 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
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