Keep It Giddy
By Susan Reiter
Susan Stroman certainly knows how to leave an audience happy—or in the case of "Double Feature," giddy. The second portion of her silent-films-come-to-the-stage program, entitled "Makin' Whoopee," is a sweet-natured, well-paced lark that brings out great charm in its performers and culminates in the hilarious, zany sequence in which 40-plus brides (I tried to count, but it was hard with that crowd) chase Tom Gold hither and yon. Stroman employs all of her theatrical savvy to build this sequence, which begins as a downcast Gold—playing hapless Jimmie Shannon, desperate to meet a 7pm deadline to get married in order to inherit a fortune—arrives at a church at the advertised time and finds it empty. Lying down to catch some winks on a pew (it has been an exhausting day, after all, as he tried out a series of inept proposals in Central Park) he is oblivious as the first of the bevy of brides appears, and others assemble, first singly, then in pairs and clusters, to fill the pews to the bursting point.
Soon the chase is on: snaking lines of brides in the full array of gleaming white gowns and veils designed by William Ivey Long, careening right to left, left to right, and down the diagonals in pursuit of their would-be prince charming to the zippy strains of "Yes Sir! That's My Baby." At times it looks like the "Bayadere" shades sequence performed on an off day and played at fast forward. It has energy, spirit and a charming appreciation for human foibles—as does all of "Makin' Whoopee."
On this second time around (a year and a month after its premiere as the centerpiece of NYCB's Winter 2004 Balanchine Centennial season), the company programmed "Double Feature" as it does "A Midsummer Night's Dream," for a full week of performances. Clearly, it hopes that with the Stroman name recognition and the character-filled nature of the work, it may appeal to audience members not drawn to more severe and "abstract" ballets. This matinee attracted quite a few families with children, and they were remarkably attentive during the nearly 2-1/2-hour program.
The full original cast performed for the first four performances—more like one would expect on Broadway, where replacements come in only when an unusual situation arises, rather than as one would expect from a ballet company, which would prepare alternating casts to be ready for such an extended run of one work. So everyone was returning to characters with which they were already comfortable and had a chance to deepen and color their interpretations. Once again, one would marvel at how well Stroman chose her dancers, and how she uncovered hidden gifts for comedy and riches of personality within them.
This even extended to the two charming School of American Ballet students who portray the characters of Mabel and Florence at age ten in "The Blue Necklace," the more soft-hearted and melodramatic opening half of he work. Happily, Tara Sorine (as Mabel) and Isabella Tobias (as Florence), although noticeably taller, had not outgrown their roles. Sorine has the real star-making role, as the sweet, wistful downtrodden adopted daughter who does Cinderella duty, washing the floors and walls, while indulging her god-given gift for dance in beautifully articulated sissones and beats. Her timing and expression are gloriously natural, and she positively glows with the innate goodness that every true heroine of such a tale must have. One is almost sorry when—in an effortlessly clever theatrical flourish—Stroman makes eight years pass in the blink of an eye and Ashley Bouder replaces Sorine as Mabel.
But Bouder brings such zest and warmth to her role, and dances with such extra-crisp security and innate musical sensibility, that she quickly becomes Mabel in our eyes, and she has a truly worthy adversary in Megan Fairchild's Florence—the bad-seed biological daughter of the heartlessly grasping Mrs. Griffith, once again portrayed with restraint and just enough of an evil gleam by Kyra Nichols. Fairchild's big moment comes in the concluding party scene, a lavish society affair at which all the plot's hidden truths eventually spill out. Saucer-eyed with a demented gleam, Fairchild recalls Christina Ricci's formidable turn in the "Addams Family" films. She brilliantly turns herself into a shallow, talentless girl whose been bred by her mother to a sense of entitlement. The essence of her nature is expressed by her inability to dance at all—this girl clearly ain't got rhythm. As dashing Billy Randolph (Damian Woetzel, in great form) gallantly tries to lead her into a duet, her arms flap wildly and her legs jut out in all the wrong ways. Comic duets are hard to pull off, but these two find all the laughs in the clunky lifts and mistimed maneuvers, without resorting to exaggeration.
This is one of the moments when "The Blue Necklace" comes to life, especially as the duet has a crucial role in the plot. Mrs. Griffith is trying to pass off Florence as Dorothy's long-lost daughter (she's heartlessly willing to deny her own maternal connection for financial gain) and it is only Mabel's innate lack of dance ability helps reveal the deception. Once Bouder —at the last possible moment, of course, in true melodramatic fashion—finds her way to the party and demands back her blue necklace, the truth must come out, and Bouder's harmonious, effortless duet with Woetzel confirms everything.
The character-filled dance moments bring "Blue Necklace" to life, but there are extended tedious gaps in between. It definitely cries out for compression, and would benefit by being a good ten minutes shorter. After the lively, if repetitive, opening Rockettes-meet Busby Berkeley chorus girl ensemble, the work slows down for a sequence of mime scenes that rely quite a bit on the projected titles to propel the action. Sorine's delectable house-cleaning solo, cleverly punctuated by moments when Nichols pokes her head in the door to make sure she's hard at work, is particularly welcome because it is the first true dance moment after quite a while. Woetzel's big solo at the party perfectly captures his Gene Kelly-like swagger and rascally charm within bravura classical steps that he tosses of with casual ease. Nichols has a sharp little dramatic solo, set to a jauntily dark arrangement of "Steppin' Out with my Baby," when she enters the party and opportunistically sizes up its possibilities. Maria Kowroski, as Dorothy Brooks, is more a presence than a character. Her dance opportunities are muted and colorless compared to some of the others, but she is a gleaming, warm, fairy godmother-like figure.
"The Blue Necklace" portrays an odd world in which, aside from Woetzel's character, men are reduced to insignificance, and the women persevere quite well without them. Mr. Griffith's only function in the plot is to rescue the baby Mabel on the church steps in the snow, and to provide a moral counterpoint to his conniving wife. He is dead before the girls are ten, allowing Mrs. Griffith to come into her own and dominate. (One does wonder, however, how this single mother of two managed not only to keep a roof over their heads, but also to move up in society, to the point where she would be invited to a society affair. Presumably the investments she made with the cash left with baby Mabel worked out extremely well.) Dorothy Brooks, the unwed mother who gives Mabel up at birth, is cast out in shame from her work with no man taking responsibility for her pregnancy (there is just a fleeting indication that her lover was one of the stagehands at the theater where she performed). When we see her ten years later, she has risen to celebrity status, and she is clearly wealthy, but unattached, when she hosts the soiree at her elegant Manhattan apartment. Billy Randolph, film star and idol of girls everywhere, is her "guest of honor" and may assume the fatherly role in the reconstituted family once Dorothy and Mabel find each other, but the happy ending is not one of clichéd romance. It is rather the celebration of mother and daughter, whose reunion thanks to the crucial blue necklace is confirmed by their sudden appearance (another nice Stroman theatrical touch) at the conclusion in matching blue costumes—the only touch of color amid "Double Feature"'s otherwise full commitment to silent film black-and-white.
The antic nature of "Makin' Whoopee" suits Stroman's gifts more naturally, and you can sense how much fun it was to put together. The Walter Doinaldson songs arrangements are as incisively chosen and employed here as the Irving Berlin compositions are for "Blue Necklace," and the pacing is much better. Tom Gold, an elfin, plucky figure who just doesn't have a way with the ladies, gives a winning performance in a demanding role that has him onstage almost constantly. He still has plenty of energy left for some fantastic flexed-foot leaps as the brides chase him near the end. Alexandra Ansanelli is both sweet and sly as his true love, and their misbegotten series of courtship scenes—one for each season—at the start are deftly delivered.
There is a series of delightful cameo performances by the dancers portraying the women whom Jimmie, in his desperation to meet his deadline, tries to marry. Stroman has uncovered the comic talents of Dana Hanson, Rebecca Krohn, Ellen Bar and Jessica Flynn. None of them has much time onstage, and what they do is more about timing and body language than actual dancing, but it is done with great flair. Then we get Carla Korbes as Flossie, a Cyd Charisse-like vamp, slinkily wrapping herself around Jimmie and his sidekicks before her tough guy hubby (Ask la Cour) appears to take her back to reality.
Stroman has a gift for the light-hearted and uncomplicated, and that's why the wacky, often over-the-top material of "The Producers" worked so well in her hands. She has given NYCB a piece of entertainment rather than a true ballet, with the first half particularly weak on dancing for extended stretches. But when it comes to life (aided by the stunning and witty parade of costumes by William Ivey Long, who discovers amazing possibilities within shades of gray), "Double Feature" is a true feel-good experience.