Sunday, June 15, 2008
Naomi Hubert and Jarrod Emick make Contact.
Theatre events like Contact always depress me, because they feel more like symptoms than shows. It's hard, watching this smorgasbord of relentlessly dirty dancing, not to feel dismayed at the suburban sexual frustration it both reflects and feeds. So I feel I must ask all the men who are dragged to the musical theatre by their girlfriends and wives:
Gentlemen, can't you get your ladies off a little more often? Please?
Because if you don't, I'll have to sit through more shows like Susan Stroman's "dance play" now at the North Shore Music Theatre. And so will you. I mean face it, we both see through these naive paeans to feminine egotism, with their pseudo-romance, their men who are either absurdly boorish or so horny they're suicidal, and and their dangerous babes with aerobic dance routines. And we both know heterosexuality never looked better than when homosexuals stage managed it. We gave you guys wit, charm, elegance, romance, and tunes you could leave the theatre singing. Susan Stroman and her ilk give you The Producers and "Simply Irresistible," which is something this musical definitely is not.
So come on. Give me a break. You can do it; hell, I've done it, and I'm gay. And if I can do it, so can you.
Of course maybe nothing can save us from Susan Stroman. Even with their sexual urges sated, the suburban women of the world may not be happy with the enchanting sophistication of Lorenz Hart or Cole Porter. Maybe they really are, as they often appear, utter beasts. But how will we ever know unless we try?
And in the meantime, I know what you're thinking; Susan Stroman isn't that bad. And she's not. I ask myself, if I didn't know this show won four Tonys, would I be as hostile to its mediocrity? Maybe I'd be intrigued by the meta-concept of the book's three vignettes, which toy with the deployment of dance as fantasy (the only dance that's free of role- or dream-play comes at the very last moment). Or maybe I'd be more amused by the final "surprise" at the end of each "story" (although only one of these, the first, is remotely a surprise).
But does any of that really make up for the fact that Susan Stroman is just not that interesting a choreographer? Yes, I know, she can work up funny production numbers; the set pieces in Oklahoma! were strong, and the extravaganzas in The Producers, with chorines coming out of filing cabinets and little old ladies dancing with walkers, were studded with cute ideas. But moment to moment, or step by step, as it were, Stroman's just a little dull. Once you get past the gimmick of each number, you realize she's not nearly in the same league as Twyla Tharp, or Bob Fosse - I'd say she's not even as good as Gower Champion. Stroman simply has no signature; there's no individual, inner life to the work, certainly not enough personality to build a whole evening around. But in Contact, which has been stripped of song and has only a rudimentary book, she's the main event, and you slowly realize Stroman's like Oakland: there's no there there. Instead, there's number after number straight out of Dancing with the Stars: lift, high kick, pelvis lock and long, sweaty stare. Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom! Over and over again, at faster and faster speeds, until all I can think is, make it stop!
But it doesn't stop, and it doesn't help that little in this choreographic torrent feels original. Even when Stroman borrows something worth having, however, she doesn't have the sense to keep her numbers to the proportions of the piece she's copying. The last half of Contact, for instance, is brazenly ripped off from Cyd Charisse's turn in Singin' in the Rain (Stroman doesn't even bother to change the costume); but while Charisse and Kelly went at it for maybe ten minutes (and of course worked up some broad, but genuine, lyricism), Stroman hammers away at the routine like the Energizer Bunny, ringing changes on the same material for something like half an hour, all to an endless pastiche of greatest hits from everyone from Benny Goodman to the Beach Boys. Don't get me wrong; the dancers are dazzling - they always are at the North Shore - and Naomi Hubert alone makes you forget all about Cyd Charisse (there's also outstanding work from Sean Ewing, Sally Mae Dunn, and Matt Rivera).
But watching these talented folks is like watching racehorses pull trolleys; Stroman never bothers to give them real material, like a genuine swing number, or a jitterbug, or a tango; she only delivers more and more television-friendly dance-fusion calisthenics. Indeed, even though the first vignette's from Fragonard, and the last from Sex and the City, the dances tend to look the same, because Stroman doesn't seem to be able to abandon her idée fixe, the utter primacy of athletic sex (sorry, "romance"). Indeed, the one thing that's really interesting (at least historically) about Stroman is how centered she is on what my mother used to call "the bikini area." In Contact, perhaps taking off from the dirty joke hidden away in Fragonard's "The Swing" (at left), there's very little doubt just which part of the anatomy everyone wants to make contact with. Is this realism, or just a phase dance is going through, like theatre did with The Vagina Monologues? Who knows, but by the finale - which follows a poor little rich boy who's contemplating suicide - we can feel Stroman's asking us to believe that nookie isn't just what's for dinner, it's also some sort of spiritual goal, not to mention the only thing that can keep our hero alive. Gosh, will he make it? All I can say is, when he suddenly reappeared in a noose (ready to, yes, swing), my partner murmured, "Is the show over now?"
Which leads me to my next thought: Is the Sue Stroman moment at the North Shore over now? She'll be back to choreograph Show Boat, true, but that's a real show and she should do a good job within its confines. And after a slew of lackluster contemporary productions like Les Miz, The Producers, and now Contact, the North Shore seems to be awakening, as it were, from some sort of bridge-and-tunnel bad dream, and is returning to its roots with Show Boat, Putnam County Spelling Bee, and 42nd Street. Not a concept show in sight, and thank God - I want my North Shore Music Theatre back!
And so gentlemen, maybe you're off the hook.