There were five of us who met up at the first matinee of Ten Cents a Dance at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, all musical fans, and the reaction was that two loved it, three hated it. Trying to find something positive to balance my feeling that it is an over-produced “Snooze-ical” is a challenge. In what the publicists describe as the “American Premiere,” the director John Doyle first staged this song-cycle, featuring nearly 30 Rodgers and Hart tunes and a wisp of a narrative, in 2002 at the Watermill Playhouse in West Berkshire, England.
Both that production and this could be accurately described as a series of the very nice songs of Rodgers and Hart performed very nicely.
Director Doyle has gained quite a reputation for engaging performers who not only can do vocals, but also can double as the orchestra. They alternate their vocals with intermittent turns on the sax, trumpet, drums and strings.
Doyle has done this to superb effect with both Sweeney Todd and Company.
The artistic conceit was born, Doyle admits, of economic necessity. Ten Cents a Dance has an abstract, dreamlike quality, as the actors circle around the stage in choreographed movements with their instruments, shifting from, say, viola to vibraphone to trumpet.
“It’s a little like watching a piece of modern dance. You don’t need it to be explained to you. You accept that it is nonlinear, you seep into it, and you yourself interpret the images,’’ Doyle is quoted as saying.In the Williamstown revision, five actors played Miss Jones 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 who shared the classic songs culled from the 500 or so Rodgers and Hart wrote. They are, in order, Lauren Molina, Jane Pfitsch, Jessica Tyler Wright, Diana DiMarzio, and Donna McKechnie. Rounding out the ensemble is Malcolm Gets as Johnny who is also an accomplished piano player.
Scott Pask created a haunted, dream like set for the sextet to sleepwalk through, for the energy level seemed to be set fairly low. Without a real book or plot, Ten Cents a Dance is a series of cleverly arranged medleys of song based on the flimsiest of similarities.
In the original production, the singers buzzed around the stage on rolling chairs, but in the WTF production, only the bass was on rollers, and the piano rotated all too frequently as the various Miss Jones’s preened and posed in their 1930′s floral print dresses and overdone hair.
What a waste of perfectly good talent.
None got to sing a whole song straight through either, and to earn their own individual applause. In fact the mooshing of one song into the next stifled audience applause, and the overly moody staging acted to shut down any connection between performers and listeners.This production worked for those who simply wanted to hear the music of Rodgers and Hart in a new way, and, forgive me for saying this, but it was a lot like elevator music. Safe and bloodless. Perhaps others enjoyed hearing the words, or the music in a non-threatening way.
You might feel a bit cheated. They had Donna McKechnie on that stage and the most she was told to do is wave her arms now and then and swirl the hem of her dress? No wonder a colleague observed that far too much of the music was Butchered, Bothered and Bewildered. All too often it was like a choir performance, not two Broadway legendary composers being honored.
Broken into five “episodes” the segments were titled The Blue Room, Isn’t It romantic, Manhattan, Ten Cents a Dance and Quiet Night. There was also an encore consisting of reprises. There were 32 different songs all told.
It’s really a toss up when it comes to recommending it or not, since those who enjoyed the show did so because they love Rodgers and Hart. And those who thought it terrible said they disliked it because they love Rodgers and Hart.
The set and lighting was very evocative of a warehouse of memories. And there was a giant spiral staircase (which show has that appeared in before?) which served for slow, deliberate entrance and exits.
Except when the walls turned blue (Blue Moon, Little Girl Blue, A Blue Room) the overall effect of the surroundings was more of a chiaroscuro film than a musical. There was a moodiness and muddiness to the musings of Mr. Jones which seemed to darken so many of the songs. One can only speculate as to what the subtext to all this was, he seemed pretty unhappy, even as he shed his tux down to a wife beater tee. Don’t ask me what that meant.
The five Miss Jones’s seemed to represent his great love at various stages of his relationship. Still it was hard to tell, mostly they just continually circled around the piano like some seniors on a mall walk. Some of the music was sung in unison, missing acres of harmonic possibilities.
If you like the music of Rodgers and Hart, and theatre that lulls you and conjures up old love affairs, hazy memories, and days gone by, this is the perfect show to enjoy.
But if you like singers to really sell their songs, to belt them out, to put real heart and soul into the lyrics, well, perhaps you might wait until a real musical comes along.
Williamstown Theatre Festival presents Ten Cents a Dance, conceived and directed by John Doyle, music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart, Scott Pask (Sets), Ann Hould-Ward (Costumes), Jane Cox (Lights) Dan Moses-Schreier (Sound), Paul Huntley (Wigs), Dontee Kiehn (Movement Consultant), Mary-Mitchell Campbell (Musical Director and Orchestrator). Cast: Johnny – Malcolm Gets, Miss Jones 1 – Lauren Molina, Miss Jones 2 – Jane Pfitsch, Miss Jones 3 – Jessica Tyler Wright, Miss Jones 4 – Diana DiMarzio, Miss Jones 5 – Donna McKechnie. 80 minutes with no intermission. August 11-28, 2011 on the Main Stage, Williamstown Theatre Festival.
David Patrick Stearns, Arts Journal (link)
Ben Brantley, New York Times (link)
Charles Guiliano, Berkshire Fine Arts (link)
Elyse Sommer, Curtain Up (link)
Peter Bergman, Berkshire Bright Focus and The Advocate (link)
Michael Eck, Albany Times Union (link)
Fred Sokol, Talkin Broadway (link)
WTF promotional video.
Edited reactions from the Opening Night audience