"Ten Cents a Dance” is a new musical at the McCarter Theater that you want to like, try hard to like, and sometimes even may think you are, indeed, liking it a little, but ultimately come to the conclusion that liking is not enough and definitely a far cry from loving. But what is there not to love about a musical tied together by memorable vintage songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart? The answer is in who has tied the songs together and who has tried to make something special or significant out of 30 or so basically unrelated songs.
You could say that British director John Doyle, who has been lauded for the innovative and clever way that he re-envisioned and staged two musical classics by Stephen Sondheim, “Sweeney Todd” and “Company,” is at it again. His concept to have the performers play their own musical instruments in the aforementioned shows was fresh, frisky, and full of surprises, not the least of which was the instrumental proficiency of performers we previously simply knew as terrific actors and singers.
The question now is whether the same format, as conceived by Doyle, is working for “Ten Cents a Dance,” or is this format already beginning to show strains of been-there-done-that. Whereas Doyle was previously motivated by two shows already defined by their musical brilliance and daring and performed by exemplary casts, “Ten Cents a Dance” is unmistakably a minor invention relying on an already tired gimmick to make it work. That the songs are also irrevocably compromised by some singing that is okay, but not great and often accompanied by less than proficient instrumental accompaniment, is not in its favor.
Doyle can claim credit for the original premise of “Ten Cents a Dance” and for inventing the central fictional character, Johnny (Malcolm Gets,) who during the course of the musical, tries to make sense of a relationship he once had or wished he had, or thinks he should have had, with a Miss Jones, as played by Donna McKechnie, Diana DiMarzio, Jessica Tyler Wright, Jane Pfitsch, redheads all, each of them representing the same Miss Jones during a different romantic phase in her and Johnny’s life. The dramatic arc consists of seeing a very sad and melancholy Johnny attempt to bring credence or perhaps closure to his memories.
Johnny, who may be either an entertainer or a composer or neither or both, has evidently returned to his old haunt. He makes his way ever so slowly down a metal spiral staircase that leads to the basement of a presumably defunct nightclub. Musical instruments of all kinds are hanging or leaning against the walls in states of repose –– an impressively atmospheric, impressionistic setting designed by Scott Pask. Johnny walks over to the piano that he gently fondles as if he and it have a past. He sits and begins to play a few notes. Apparently conjured up by his tickling of the keys and the first notes of “Blue Moon,” are the five Miss Joneses. Dressed in very pretty similar purple and white floral print dresses (credit costume designer Ann Hould-Ward,) they make the slow descent down the staircase not unlike the ghosts that haunt the old theater about to be demolished in the Stephen Sondheim musical “Follies.”
What follows without dialogue and without the need for more justification is a succession of songs that virtually defined the early golden years of American musical theater, as sung by Johnny and the five versions of Miss Jones. Whether they sufficiently define either Johnny or any of the Miss Joneses is another matter, but perhaps it doesn’t matter.
If the books of most of R & H shows have not held up well, their songs continue to hold a special place in our individual and collective consciousness as well as in our attitudes about romantic love and loss. Because R & H’s theater songs rarely were concerned with moving the plot along, they have been contrived to conform without too much incredulity to Doyle’s format.
Presented at the McCarter Theater as a co-production with the Williamstown Theater Festival, where it just concluded an engagement, “Ten Cents a Dance” is neither a revue in the traditional sense nor is it a book musical with a plot, but rather a hybrid. We do suspect by watching Gets’s mostly glazed-over gaze that he is in his own world, but we are privy to his imagination at work. The stage quickly becomes the playground for the Misses Jones to toy, taunt, and trifle with the man who used to be their lover. Under Doyle’s direction, they fiddle and toot, blow, and bang away on a variety of instruments as they also parade about, pose, and preen for Johnny’s amusement. I only suspect by his expression or lack of one, that he is not amused.
Gets, who has given many admirable performances on and off Broadway, is certainly challenged by a role in which he appears to be no more than a cipher with a romanticized past, but he sings adequately and plays the prescribed notes with flair and finesse. The five former showgirls, each one having been left a “Little Girl Blue” by their possibly regretful Johnny One-Expression, have ample opportunities to align their personalities with some wonderful songs.
Each Miss Jones shines in her own light (the lighting by Jane Cox is exceptional and a major factor in producing the right atmospherics) and is often seen presiding over a song. McKechnie, who is most well-known for her Tony Award-winning performance in “A Chorus Line,” represents the most mature Miss Jones. She and Gets do a particularly heartfelt “Where or When.” They substantiate their past better than the others especially with “This Can’t Be Love” and “My Heart Stood Still.” I have to admit my heart stood still every time McKechnie missed a decisive ping or a ding on her triangle.
Of the other Miss Joneses, Diane Di Marzio’s brash personality and her belting, Jane Pfitsch’s attitude of annoyance and impatience, Jessica Tyler Wright’s sultry insinuations, and Elisa Winter’s beguiling smiles individually and collectively flavor most of the songs. Comedy gets its due when the five Miss Joneses line up with their saxophones for a rambunctious “At The Roxy Music Hall. Also as an ensemble, they put an amusing twist on “The Lady is a Tramp,” the devilish “To Keep My Love Alive” and the delightfully provocative “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.”
The staging is enhanced by the occasional use of a revolving platform and some moments when the Miss Joneses are captured in a freeze during Johnny’s dream-like transitions. But one wonders what it would have taken Miss Jones to make this Johnny smile. More importantly, what would it take to make an audience think this was a show with nothing more than 30 songs in its heart?
“Ten Cents a Dance,” through Sunday, October 9, Berlind Theater at McCarter, 91 University Place. $20 to $70. 609-258-2787.