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Rodgers & Hart Anti-Cabaret: Thou Swell, Thou Anguished

During one of Malcolm Gets’ more ebullient television appearances – was it 1996 on The Rosie O’Donnell Show? – the final credits rolled while this stage and screen actor jammed with the band, playing keyboard as if auditioning for a second career. So why did he take so long to work with director John Doyle, who has actors accompany themselves and each other onstage with musical instruments? And  – in the case of Patti Lupone playing tuba in Sweeney Todd –  ones they haven’t played since high school?

Now that Gets is starring in the latest Doyle show, Ten Cents a Dance at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, do you give him a badge of honor or pray for his well-being? Ditto for the rest of the cast – five identically-dressed women, among them the ever-wonderful Donna McKechnie – is cryptically identified as Miss Jones Nos. 1-5.

Audience reception on the evening of Aug. 13 was respectful but baffled, so much that I and a half dozen complete strangers gathered on the sidewalk debriefing each other, ultimately asking, “Did we miss something? Was this really … it?”

Ten Cents a Dance is advertised as a new book musical based on the songs of Rodgers & Hart – conceived by the director of several Stephen Sondheim revivals on Broadway, not to mention Peter Grimes at the Metropolitan Opera. The intermission-less 85-minute show presents songs in clumps, six or so at a time, sometimes in counterpoint to each other and usually with Gets at the piano. The women switch off instruments – McKechnie plays triangle and takes a few whacks at the glockenspiel – though at times unseen instrumentalists take over for them. There’s virtually no talking.

The cast is mostly directed to explore the dark side of these songs, and underneath the effervescent Richard Rodgers melodies, the Lorenz Hart lyrics can be scathing. Break down “Falling in Love with Love” and the cynicism is breathtaking. Legend has it that Hart wrote “My Funny Valentine” after taking a long look in the mirror. Even the unclouded  domestic utopia of “Thou Swell” is juxtaposed against an end-of-the-affair song, “He Was Too Good to Me.” Sometimes the singers break down in anguish in the middle. Gets is a brooding presence throughout, shedding his three-piece suit, piece by piece, until he’s down to a wife-beater T-shirt that, one has to assume, is intentionally unflattering.

In effect, Doyle has taken the un-exalted genre of the jukebox musical and drained off the entertainment value. This is an observation, not a judgment, especially since the show – which goes on to the McCarter Theater after the Aug. 28 Williamstown closing – feels unfinished, even though it has already had one production in the U.K.

The question is what the show trying to accomplish. At the very least, you’re reminded that each Rodgers & Hart song is a world unto itself – one reason why we don’t miss the 28 mostly-forgotten shows that the songs come from. In the bigger picture, my theory is that Ten Cents a Dance is a descendant of the Susan Stroman show Contact, in which pre-existing songs were used to tell the story of a disillusioned middle-age man seeking elusive redemption in the form of a possibly-hallucinatory woman in a yellow dress. Ten Cents a Dance abstracts that idea one step further.

The plot is there, but it is presented completely in subtext, thus existing in the mind of the beholder. Characters are there, but we’re  not given any concrete information about them. Does Gets represent the inner life of Hart, who was an alcoholic tormented by his homosexuality? When he sings the song “Manhattan” with its references to the island being a toy “made for a girl and boy” he chortles sardonically. Perhaps yes, perhaps no. One analogy might be a late-Impressionist paintings in which form has broken down into a mass of color, though form remains the unseen foundation.

Damping down the Williamstown cast probably took some doing. These are singers whose every instinct drives them to sell songs, not dissect them. Gets sings at the very bottom of his range – as opposed to letting himself soar. McKechnie, however, is hopelessly warm and inviting; the Broadway veteran of more than 40 years just can’t help herself. The other cast members – Lauren Molina, Jane Pfitsch, Jessica Tyler Wright and Diana DiMarzio – also get their blood pumping amid the depressive gloom. But momentum is repeatedly stymied: The singers are seemingly directed to splinter even the most lyrical phrase in the middle, perhaps to shake the audience out of its pre-conceived notions of what this music means.

In other words, the audience has to be retrained – on a nightly basis and twice on Saturdays. Is this possible? Or is this a quixotic experiment that could be completely successful on its own extreme terms yet still be unwatchable?

Comments

  1. You said it better than me. I don’t think even the Williamstown promotion people had any idea of what this show was trying to do and so, the press release copy didn’t remotely reflect what was on stage. They prepared the audience for one thing, and delivered something completely different.

    • Peter Bergman says:

      They’re still at it with the ad campaign for a “romantic musical.” It’s a determined plot to delude the public into buying tickets.

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