The long-anticipated musical, The Little Dancer, made its official world premiere at the Kennedy Center last week, and its star dazzled the opening night audience whose applause, at several points, nearly stopped the show.
From the first scene where the gamine Tiler Peck was seated on the floor, painstakingly examining an over-worn toe-shoe, she had our sympathies. By the time she stood center stage and, like her character, danced for her shot of glory, she held us enthralled. Balanced on one leg and whipping the other leg in tight knee-high circles, she made herself spin on a leg of steel, as powerful as a diamond needle, and executed flawlessly as only a prima ballerina can a fiery display of fouettées.
The sequence of spins, borrowed from Odile’s famous Black Swan solo, symbolized the dazzling performance of the young singer-dancer-actress plucked from the New York City Ballet. Every time she spun face front, her chin was tilted slightly upwards and her face flashed a rare dare-me-if-you-can look. Peck never backed down in any of her scenes but threw herself into each dramatic movement with reckless abandon. Every time she took the stage, the entire show lit up.
The Little Dancer took to the Eisenhower stage almost a month ago, and the press was kept at bay for over three weeks of previews. Mind you, it didn’t hurt “the buzz.” More and more, with the price tag and risk-taking required to mount a show on Broadway, (it’s reported that the Kennedy Center production topped $7 million) producers have wanted to ensure a show’s readiness.
The bankability of this work is in large part due to the choreography of the director and five-time Tony Award winner Susan Stroman. Much of her choreography is sublime.
The work is based on Edward Degas, the Parisian painter, patron, and documentarian of the Paris Opera Ballet in the early twentieth century. Much of the first act is in homage to classical ballet repertory. I have mentioned the fouettées but also, from Swan Lake, Stroman featured the quartet of young ballet dancers with locked cross-arms and sharp-and-precise-as-sewing-machine-needles footwork. There are many other such delightful borrowings. But it’s the second act where Stroman breaks the mold and guns the movement that the show finds an edgy but spectacular new dance vocabulary.
In the story, Degas abandons his oil paintings of prettified backstage ballet groupings to risk his reputation by creating an iconic figure in wax, a single young dancer, one of the chorus members they called “rats.” In parallel, Stroman creates movement that becomes more unpredictable, pushing the dancers into angular and staccato arm movements and incorporating flexed feet and sharp jazzy combinations.
The set likewise goes through many transmutations. I liked the vision enormously of designer Beowulf Boritt (and who could help but be enamored of an artist with such a name and holding such credits!) although at first, the huge flats seemed bleak and closed in the dancers, cramping their movements. Thereafter I discovered this intentional claustrophobia depicted the crowded backstage of a world always at work in dingy real time in order to make magic in the light. As scene after scene unfolded, flats became periaktoi, devices used for changing scenery in classical Greek theatre, and they turned to make new combinations and settings to fulfill the many venues of the story.
The design was enhanced by the spectacular light and projections designs of Ken Billington and Benjamin Pearcy, who worked gorgeously together to re-create those dreamy, slightly dusty colors of Degas’ world of ballet. William Ivey Long costumed the show, catching the contrast between the classes and the airy “high art” of ballet against the gaudiness of the Moulin Rouge guttersnipes.
Nonetheless, while there is much to recommend it, the show as a whole, as they say, is “growing.” Seasoned producers of musicals will tell you that a musical is never written; it is rewritten. And rewritten.
Lynn Ahrens’ book, like her marvelous work on Ragtime, endeavors to encompass a whole age. She has tried to catch the energy, the voices, the shapes of Paris streets before the turn of the twentieth century. But in The Little Dancer, the story’s world proceeds so fleetingly cinematic we lose the substance. There were other choices which I feel have not yet been exercised.
I lost, time and again, the thread of the central story about a fading artist at the end of his career being inspired by and in turn inspiring and aiding a young street urchin to go for her dream of being a ballet dancer.
Ahrens had tried to solve the problem of whether this would be a dance-theatre or a musical piece by splitting the character of Marie von Goethem into two roles, that of the younger (the dancer) and adult (the primary singer) The very talented Rebecca Luker was mostly subjugated to observing her more dynamic younger self on stage, commenting on and singing of her lost opportunities. Sadly, her costume did not help for she seemed straightjacketed into a clone of Mary Poppins, another role Luker has played.
Janet Dickinson fared better as Mary Cassatt, the very forceful American artist and patient friend of the petulant and sometimes downright rude Degas. She was quite winning in everything she did, from her chance encounter with Marie, the young model and later in the culminating tête-a-tête conversations with the older Marie at his estate after Degas has died. But the character didn’t help advance the story and mostly flitted in and out.
Saddest of all, neither the book nor the music written for the character of Edward Degas, who should be the theatrical centerpiece of this work or at least equal co-star, gives enough sustained substance or lyricism to Boyd Gaines. His lines – and the withering looks called for in the script – rarely deliver anything sharper or deeper than television sitcom. His songs saw away at the same place in the voice and don’t give him a chance to “lift off” nearly enough. I was touched by the little duet he has with the Young Marie, “A Box of Things,” and I ached when he raged against his advancing blindness and, again, when he stumbled out in the wintry night to try and find his vanishing model and muse. But I wanted more, and I believe his character very short-changed.
Closes November 30, 2014
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $45 – $155
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
We saw singers who really pulled out the most with their moments, including the young Kyle Harris as violinist/love interest, and his “Musicians, Dancers, and Fools” was one of the best songs in the show. Sean Martin Hingston made a devilishly good rake on the prowl and showed he was that triple threat singer-actor-dancer.
Jenny Power as Marie’s older sister, who’s escaped the drunken squalor of life at home with their mother but has sold herself into a compromised and precarious existence, also made some strong impressions, and in her atop-the-bar inebriated performance proved she has significant singing chops. Karen Ziemba as their mother carries off successfully one of the more complex and dramatic roles of the evening.
The last scene demonstrates Ahrens’ vision best of what this show can become dramatically. Here Luker in discovering herself, her lost young dancer in the artwork of a dead man, is heartbreakingly touching. We were all reminded that art endures and carries forward the dreams of the human spirit..
As of this run, dance is what makes this show. All that visual magic and all that hard grit combined with grace deserve our support. And a more beautiful night in the theatre one couldn’t hope to find.
The Little Dancer . Book and Lyrics: Lynn Ahrens . Music: Stephen Flaherty . Direction and Choreography: Susan Stroman . Music Director and Conductor Shawn Gough . Featuring Boyd Gaines, Rebecca Luker, Tiler Peck, Karen Ziemba, Polly Baird, Wendi Bergamini, Lauren Blackman, Sophia Anne Caruso, Janet Dickinson, Juliet Doherty, Nina Goldman, Kyle Harris, Sean Martin Hingston, Jolina Javier, Michael X. Martin, Michael McCormick, James Pierce III, Jenny Powers, Katelyn Prominksi, Michele Ragusa, John Riddle, Amy Ruggiero, Joseph Simeone, Justin Urso, Lyrica Woodruff . Scenic design: Beowolf Boritt . Costume design: William ivey Long . Lighting design: Ken Billington . Sound design: Kai Harada . Projection design: Benjamin Percy . Orchestrations: Doug Besterman and Larry Hockman . Production Stage manager: Jasosn Brouillard . Technical director: Doug Grekin . Produced by Max Woodward and the Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.
Closes Nov 30
Susan Dormady Eisenberg . Huffington Post sometimes [art is] more beautiful than you can imagine, and Little Dancer proves this again and again especially during the finale which took my breath away.
Gary Tischler . Georgetowner the ravishing,from-the-ground-up, entirely original Kennedy Center musical with Broadway hopes
Peter Marks . Washington Post a fairly pedestrian tale, buoyed at times by a romantic musicality redolent of Belle Époque Paris and a smart, eye-catching design.
Charles Isherwood . NY Times This polished and pretty if less than transporting show…features a dramatic ballet in which the young heroine relives the rapturous highs and demoralizing lows of her life.
Paul Harris . Variety abounding with conviction, scintillating elements and issues to address
Diane Jackson Schnoor . DCMetroTheaterArts sheer perfection for ballet and musical theater fans alike
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld this simply lovely offering near perfectly melds the worlds of musical theatre and ballet
Elliot Lanes . MDTheatreGuide bar none, the best musical I have seen all year.