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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

produced.

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)

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 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

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

Sold out through January 2, but moves to the Vivian Beaumont March

9. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200.

Ticket Numbers

Unless otherwise noted, reservations can be made through Tele-Charge

at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200 . For Ticketmaster listings call

800-755-4000 or 212-307-4100.

For current information on Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, music,

and dance call NYC/On Stage at 212-768-1818, a 24-hour performing

arts hotline operated by the Theater Development Fund. The TKTS same-day,

half-price ticket booth at Times Square (Broadway & 47th) is open

daily, 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. for evening performances; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

for Wednesday and Saturday matinees; and noon to closing for Sunday

matinees. The lower Manhattan booth, on the Mezzanine at 2 World Trade

Center, is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Saturday

11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; closed Sunday. Cash or travelers’ checks only.

Visit TKTS at: www.tdf.org.

A Broadway ticket line at 212-302-4111 gives information on Broadway,

selected Off-Broadway, and touring shows in other cities; calls can

be transferred to a ticket agent. Sponsored by Continental Airlines

and the New York Times.


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