If I were to tell you that young couples once danced nearly to the point of death, staying in motion for forty-five minutes every hour around the clock for sometimes 4,000 hours straight for a chance, if they survived, to win a cash prize, would you believe me?
It’s true, and the area’s indispensable American Century Theater ends its season with an absorbing look back at the Depression era phenomena known as the Dance Marathon.
The real life Baby June in Gypsy, sister of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, became Hollywood actor June Havoc. As a teenager, she ran away from vaudeville and entered the grueling world of dance marathons. In the early 60’s, Havoc wrote a play about them titled Marathon ’33 .
Since Marathon ’33 requires a huge cast and a live band, not many companies can afford to produce such an extravaganza, so very few audiences have had a chance to see the play. But American Century has revived this “docudrama with music”, as director Jack Marshall calls it, with a highly entertaining, fully realized production.
Imagine you are in a ballroom in 1933. You sit in the bleachers just above the floor where teams dance until they cannot go on. Everybody there is tempest-tossed by the Depression, willing to endure this torture for meager prizes and a little “floor money” thrown by the spectators. A 6 piece band sits ready to play pop tunes of the period like “April Showers”, “Tiger Rag”, “ If You Were the Only Girl in the World” and the theme song of dance marathons, “Please Go Away and Let Me Sleep,” to keep the dancers moving.
The walls of Gunston Theatre Two are papered with vintage advertising posters and notice placards. Emcee Ruddy Blaine (Bill Karukas) talks velvety smooth into his PA mics. The realistic set design goes so far as building the super-tall buffet tables that once allowed the contestants to keep dancing while they ate.
Much of this material was covered in the book (and later—the movie) “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” But as one astute patron observed during intermission, the book used dance marathons as a background for the drama, while in Marathon ’33, the drama is a backdrop for recreating the competitions themselves.
At the center of our story is Jean Reed (Jennifer Richter), a former vaudeville performer, forced into working as a competition professional, brought in by the promoters to keep prize money out of the hands of local amateurs. Though in a bind, she hasn’t lost hope in life, and dreams of becoming a star in the legitimate theatre. Richter wins the crowd’s sympathy as she limps and agonizes across the stage, coming so close to losing all hope, then picking herself up again.
Bruce Alan Rauscher also wins the audience over as Jean’s more cynical partner Patsy. Rauscher moves on the stage with the grace and timing of a 1930’s comic star, and interacts with the rest of the dancers with remarks that are as biting as they are funny.
Though technically a play about dancing, there is little stylistic dancing. Mostly, as in the actual dance marathons, the actors struggle to keep their feet moving and stay in the competition. Mr. James (Alex Witherow), like the worst phys-ed teacher in the world skates around, yardstick in hand, enforcing the rules. The only moment of technical dancing is the tap competition, featuring all the women dance partners, except Richter. Each taps like her life depends on it, trying to influence the audience, which will decide the winner.
From the beginning, the competition is fierce, with competitors slowly dropping away. Dancers manipulate each other and often get malicious just to stay in what may , after all, be a rigged game. Survival and dignity are often at odds, in life and in great drama.
Marathon ’33 runs thru August 25, 2012 at Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two, 2700 S. Lang Street Arlington, VA.
By June Havoc
directed by Jack Marshall
Music direction by Thomas Fuller
Choreography by Sherry Chriss
Produced by American Century Theater
Reviewed by Steve Hallex
Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with 1 intermission