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Theatre in Review: American Dance Machine (Joyce Theater)

The company performs "Slap That Bass" from Crazy for You.

Welcome back to American Dance Machine, the company created to explore our almost impossibly rich heritage of musical theatre choreography. Originally founded in the late '70s by Lee Becker Theodore, a Jerome Robbins dancer (in the original casts of The King and I and West Side Story) and choreographer (Baker Street; Flora, the Red Menace; The Apple Tree), the project shut down after her death. It was revived in 2012, with Nikki Feirt Atkins as director, with, according to press materials, the goal of "creating a living and vibrant archive of classic and current notable musical theater choreography."

And, based on the program at the Joyce, American Dance Machine for the 21st Century (as it is now named) is well on its way. "We'll Take a Glass Together," from Grand Hotel, proves once again the minimalist brilliance of Tommy Tune's musical staging. It's performed by two men in the title hotel's bar, represented by a kind of limbo stick; behind them, the company, facing upstage, takes part in a frantic series of inverted Charleston steps; an entire scene is brought to life in a few bold strokes. Nobody is likely to erase the memory of the character actor Michael Jeter, whose eccentric steps made the original so memorable, but Tyler Hanes and Mikey Winslow give the dancing its due. In another Tune number, "Our Favorite Son," from The Will Rogers Follies, David Paul Kidder and the company deliver a showstopper -- while seated -- entirely consisting of hyperactive and fiendishly intricate hand and leg movements.

Seeing the dream ballet from Oklahoma!, one is struck by the lightness of spirit in Agnes DeMille's choreography, at least until it turns nightmarish, ending in death and abduction. DeMille set out to explore a young woman's sexual conflicts in dance; has any musical theatre choreographer ever done it better? The Harlem revue Bubbling Brown Sugar is largely forgotten today, but, in "Sweet Georgia Brown," Shonica Gooden, exuding bushels of sass, Justin Prescott, and Tommy Scrivens deliver a delirious series of high kicks choreographed by Billy Wilson. Arguably the evening's most powerful piece is "Fight from Golden Boy," a boxing bout, ending in death, savagely staged by Donald McKayle. It's astonishing to see how violent stylized movement can be.

You don't need me to remind you of the brilliance of Robbins and Michael Bennett, but, in "Cool" from West Side Story, Robbins created a series of tightly contained movements that, as they explode in brief bursts of fury, retain every bit of their original power. Irving Berlin's "Mr. Monotony," a song that kept getting cut from films and shows, found a home in Robbins' Broadway, and his slyly erotic evocation of a young lady torn between fidelity and variety is confidently delivered here. The mob-scene opening of A Chorus Line -- punctuated by Bennett's athletic jazz combination and the raging staccato beats behind "I Hope I Get It" -- is still peerless after all these years. At the performance I attended, Lori Ann Ferreri found plenty of drama in "The Music and the Mirror," the punishing solo that is A Chorus Line's heart and soul. Other performers to keep an eye on: Paloma Garcia-Lee and Rick Faugno in a torrid pas de deux in "Gotta Dance" from Singin' in the Rain (the program offers a few excerpts from television and film); Nicholas Palmquist and Amy Ruggiero capturing the innocent lyricism of Oklahoma!'s dream ballet and Prescott and Scrivens making tap seem as natural as breathing in "Happy as the Day is Long," choreographed by Warren Carlyle for another Harlem-based revue, After Midnight.

As much pleasure as there is to be had here, there is considerable room for improvement, however. A medley of Jack Cole numbers lacks precision of execution, although it does offer a brief (and beguiling) look at a flamenco trio from the long-forgotten flop Carnival in Flanders. Susan Stroman's witty "Slap That Bass," from Crazy for You, somehow doesn't build as it should. Although Wayne Cilento is the evening's director, it still seems odd to include his staging of "Pinball Wizard" from The Who's Tommy, since it contains so little dance. The three young ladies who take the lead in Bennett's "Turkey Lurkey Time," from Promises, Promises, lack the individuality and firecracker personalities that the number requires. Several of the numbers features weak vocals, which are not aided by Matt Kraus' muddy sound design. David C. Woolard's costumes and David Grill's lighting both look like rush jobs. Edward Pierce's scenery is minimal, although the many projections, by Batwin + Robin Productions, provide evocative backgrounds and fill in crucial bits of information, including the names of the choreographer and show.

All of the people mentioned in the previous paragraph are leading professionals; the company also lists as its stagers such great names as Patti D'Beck, Niki Harris, Angelique Ilo, Robert La Fosse, Gemze de Lappe, Pamela Sousa, and Donna McKechnie, so I think it's fair to assume that these will improve with time. Going forward, the overall level of performance will surely get better. The main thing is that American Dance Machine is once again with us. Just as programs like Encores! at City Center help to preserve the sound of our Broadway musical heritage, this fine company is documenting, restoring, and bringing back to life the dances that made the great musicals move so memorably. -- David Barbour

(23 December 2015)

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