Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Intermission Talk - September 29, 2009

Intermission Talk - September 29, 2009

'Burn the Floor,' Then

Take 'The 39 Steps'

by Tony Vellela


Sometimes it takes a good strong slap in the face to make us see what is always right in front of our nose.

Consider: Anna and the King doing the grand, sweeping waltz "Shall We Dance?;" Savion Glover tap-dancing on the sides of his shoes in "Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk;" the fiery challenge sequence in "Dance in the Gym;" Dolly triumphantly descending the stairs and taking over the dance floor in "Hello, Dolly!;" the hot, hot numbers by the Girl in the Yellow Dress in "Contact;" Billy Elliot taking flight in "Electricity;" the shedding of the robes in "Oh! Calcutta!," and the first two minutes of the "42nd Street" revival with the curtain up only one foot, revealing dozens of dancing feet tapping out their rhythms to thunderous applause.

Yup - dancing. The third language of musical theatre [dialogue, lyrics]. It's the most vibrant, and the least respected of the communications styles. Now, after touring the world for the last decade, "Burn the Floor" has been filling seats with shoulder-swinging patrons amazed at how much they are loving this show.

Count me among them. Even before the show starts, the theatre is filled with recorded music that reminds us of iconic dance numbers, including Fred Astaire crooning "Puttin' on the Ritz," and Gwen Verdon insisting that "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets." Then eighteen of the sexiest bodies this side of anywhere cha-cha the life out of "Ballroom Beat," and the beat continues for two solid acts of dancing that never slows down.



Photo credit: Ari Mintz | Giselle Peacock and Kevin Clifton in "Burn the Floor," dance extravaganza on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St. (Photo by Ari Mintz / July 24, 2009)

"Burn the Floor" benefits from a virtuoso cast drawn from international award-winners, representing Australia, England, Slovenia, Malaysia, Russia and the United States. They execute the intricacies of two distinct groups or categories of dance: the standard dances [waltz, foxtrot, Viennese waltz, tango and quickstep], and the second, known as the Latin dances: [cha cha, samba, pasa doble, rumba and jive]. And while they draw from songs more familiar in their native countries, a string of Hit Parade numbers from down through the ages provide the backdrop for all styles, including "Proud Mary," "I Just Want to Make Love to You," "Nights in White Satin" and "Turn the Beat Around."

The energy and electricity on the stage of the Longacre could power the city during the next blackout. Solos, couples, multiple couples and the whole ensemble trade off featured spots with the precision and panache that can only come from champions, who hit every exact step and motion with zest, and accuracy. Lest this sound robotic, you can be assured that there is real, human, sexy, smoldering give-and-take going on, generating heat and quickening pulses. And two stand-outs who are the best of the best, Peta Murgatroyd [Australia] and Kevin Clifton [US and Britain], infuse their numbers with a kind of real, visible joy which reaches, and touches every member of the audience.

The evening glides by smoothly, thanks in part to the effortless segues that choreographer/ director Jason Gilkison has created, like watching those smooth hand-offs in an Olympic relay race.

With only a small staircase and a few chairs and tables, the set stays out of the way of the intricate numbers. What does provide eye relief and added color are Jane Hine's costumes, which were based on original designs by John Van Gastel. Every number features new costumes that showcase every sleek physique, every saucy step, every gesture, leer, nod, wink and sidelong glance. If eligible, the "Burn the Floor" producers should make an extra effort to see that these costume designs are front-runners [front-dancers?] in this Tony Award category.

Still in a category by itself, "The 39 Steps" continues to prompt reckless eruptions of laughter from audience members, whether or not they have seen the original 1935 Alfred Hitchcock thriller that it satirizes. But not for too much longer. Take heed! This British import packs its versatile trunks early next year [January 10], to clear the Helen Hayes for the arrival of Geoff Nauffts' "Next Fall." THIS fall, if you haven't done so yet, schedule tickets for a time when you think you can use an extra boost of hearty belly laughs.



As thrillers go, the original film was, in its day, thrilling. Today, the yarn about a mysterious woman who commandeers a clueless sport to avoid the transport of a critically vital chemical formula [ read: McGuffin]out of the country is as threadbare as the shooting arm shoulder on a tweed hunting jacket. But what fun to commandeer this plot and toss it into the hands of just four virtuoso actors who inhabit dozens of characters, as they bound through the Scottish countryside, one step ahead of police, foreign agents and all vestiges of sanity.

Sean Mahon as the hapless hero Richard Hannay manages to maintain a tremulous equilibrium while all the world around him is losing theirs and blaming it on him. As the femmes fatales three in number, a justifiably self-confident Jill Paice nails all three femmes, conveying their respective countries and dialects [England, Scotland, and her foreign land of origin that she never discloses]. She especially brings that thirties debutante 'spunk' to the role of Margaret, who gets dragged across the moors handcuffed to Hannay on the lam.

The ultra-spare approach, using a ladder, a doorframe, an armchair and a few trunks, only heightens the hilarity, as a train coach suggested by people perched on the trunks, bouncing slightly in time, to indicate the rhythm of the tracks, then become the roof of the train, as Hannay perches on the lids of the trunks, open trench coat flapping to mimic the wind. The ingenuity of prop use and clever use of lighting enhances the richness of the proceedings.

The other fifty-hundred roles are handled by the nimble Jeffrey Kuhn and Arnie Burton, staying perfectly in sync with each other as hats are traded and accents are batted back and forth. Every creative element is honed to its highest degree of sharpness.

Overall, the comedic action interlocks with as much precision as any of the dances in "Burn the Floor," because "The 39 Steps" is as much choreographed as acted. And if anyone says to you that theatre does not offer anything special, send them, or bring them to the Helen Hayes - this is what the best in theatre looks like.

On Book

And if you'd like to delve into the creative mind and the intricate process of one of Broadway's all-time great choreographers, here are three choices that will open your eyes, and make you wanna dance, dance, dance.

In "Bob Fosse's Broadway," Margery Beddow recounts her experiences as a dancer who performed in the original productions of "Redhead," "The Conquering Hero," and "Little Me," and went on to perform in the touring companies of "The Pajama Game," "Damn Yankees" and "Sweet Charity." In a simple, declarative style, Beddow skips through his career, offering personal observations, anecdotes and the comments of others who were also on the scene during those years.

"All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse," a more-or-less traditional biography, benefits from author Martin Gottfried's journalism skills as a drama critic for the New York Post, the Saturday Review and Women's Wear Daily. Following this volcanic life from the North Side of Chicago to the lights of ole' Broad - way, Gottfried interweaves private and public episodes that occur all through the life of this much-married, much-addicted compulsive comet of a man.

Finally, theatre's longest-running musical theatre creative team, John Kander and Fred Ebb, are the subject of a loving career and life biography by James Leve, called, unpretentiously, "Kander and Ebb." In it, the shows and television specials of theirs that sizzled with their friend Fosse's work are parsed, giving us a more insightful sense of how these collaborations worked, or in some cases, didn't.

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TONY VELLELA is the veteran theatre correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and Dramatics Magazine, and writer/producer of the PBS theatre series "Character Studies,." His work has also appeared in Parade, Theatre Week, USA Today, Rolling Stone and several other publications. His special classes at HB Studio for actors, directors and playwrights, [www.hbstudio.org], examine characters from great plays and musicals.

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