The sound we hear over breakfast is Ben Brantley barking up the wrong tree. Now, it’s true that no two critics will agree on anything much, including the time of day. Mr. Brantley believes, for example, that the earth is flat, whereas everyone knows it’s square. But I must say that his breathlessly ecstatic acclaim for Susan Stroman’s “dance-play” Contact as the long-awaited musical masterpiece of our time takes the strudel.
” Contact is a sustained endorphin rush of an evening, that rare entertainment that has you floating all the way home,” his New York Times review began about “the joyful noise” at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Lincoln Center. It’s “a new musical throbbing with wit,” “brimming with sophistication,” “the kinetic equivalent of Rodgers and Hart” and so on. That’s some praise. And for good measure, Mr. Brantley unhesitatingly recommends a Broadway transfer.
Why, then, didn’t I find myself floating all the way home on a sustained endorphin rush along with Ben? An evening of swing dancing in the good company of its director-choreographer Ms. Stroman and a first-rate ensemble of dancers (and dancing actors) had my hopes up. A dance-play, as Ms. Stroman refers to Contact , is a fresh departure for the somewhat beleaguered theater at Lincoln Center, and one welcomed it with a greedy sense of treat. But I regret that I found the show a misfire-with its usually smart choreographer off-form and a book by John Weidman that’s bewilderingly dated, and painfully so at times.
Contact has no original score. There’s recorded music that ranges haphazardly, it seems, from “My Heart Stood Still,” by Rodgers and Hart, to Grieg, Puccini, and “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You” sung by the one and only Dean Martin. The dance play itself is three vignettes set in 1767, 1954 and 1999, which are linked-stretching a point. They’re about contact through swing dance, in Ms. Stroman’s words, about “people connecting and touching.”
The short opening piece, titled “Swinging,” is a re-creation of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting The Swing . A painting come to life isn’t too fresh an idea; nor is the lame fantasy of master and servant role swapping. Mr. Weidman, the show’s writer, has said he sees the role reversal at the end “as the French Revolution.” So perhaps I have it wrong. Mr. Brantley, on the other hand, sees the evening’s “iciest and most erotically explicit episode.” We would cheerfully agree with them both that the curtain raiser is an erotically explicit version of the French Revolution were it not for the overwhelming evidence before our eyes that we’re actually watching an old-fashioned tease performed by a flighty girl on a swing with all the frolicksome flashing of a soft-porn starlet in period costume.
Ms. Stroman is, of course, the choreographer who has given a good name to musical revivalism. Her work on Hal Prince’s version of Show Boat all but saved the notoriously tricky second act with a celebration of popular dance that mirrored an entire age; her Fred Astaire tribute for Crazy for You was stylish fun; her choreography for Oklahoma! at the Royal National Theater kept the vintage quintessential American musical on the boil (though I had a few doubts about her Wild West dream sequence). Her generous talent is for pastiche, her signature style takes pleasure in props, novelty, ingenious games.
But her witty sense of easeful choreographed invention is mostly absent from Contact . The opening dance has some coyly flirtatious business with grapes and champagne; its center is less a sexy dance, more an obstacle course involving lovers simulating sex on a swing without falling off. Those of you who have tried the same thing-swinging at quite high speed, too-will best appreciate the strain of the contortionist clinging on for dear life. But that wasn’t Ms. Stroman’s intention.
The second piece, entitled “Did You Move?” closes the first act and is set in an Italian restaurant, Queens, in 1954. Mr. Weidman’s story involves a stereotypical parody of an Italian mobster having dinner with his cowed, submissive wife. The plot-I kid you not-revolves around a bread roll. The man just can’t get a bread roll. “No fuckin’ rolls!” he shouts indignantly, and goes off in search of one-thereby leaving his hangdog wife to dream of becoming a prima ballerina.
She comes alive via dance. That is, until her horrible old man returns sans bread roll and goes out to get one yet again, leaving the ballerina dream sequence to continue. The MTV silliness of the little playlet aside, the wistful humor of the swing dances is a wee bit forced, the mild parody of classical ballet as telegraphed as Karen Ziemba’s staunch chirpiness.
The big second-act signature piece, “Contact,” takes place in New York City, 1999 (though the costumes of William Ivey Long make it seem like Showbiz Town, any time). It’s about a lonely and successful advertising executive, played by Boyd Gaines, who hangs himself. All successful advertising executives are suicidally lonely in theater, but let it pass. He hangs himself, sort of. The soulless suicide finds himself in a pool hall-cum-swing dance club in search of the girl of his dreams. It’s another dream sequence!
He,too, finds himself through dance-except he can’t dance. Mr. Gaines plays a klutz in love with a beautiful Mystery Girl, who unsurprisingly turns out to be the girl who lives in the apartment below him, who’s always complaining about the noise he makes, particularly during a hanging, and-oh, skip it. The Mystery Girl, or Girl of Our Dreams, is a blonde bimboesque stereotype, incidentally. “A pinup girl for straight men in a New York musical,” commented Mr. Brantley. “Who would have thought it?”
Note to all straight men: And you thought the musical was for gays only!
But I didn’t find Act 2′s romantic Hallmark mini-drama a steamy psychological study of what Mr. Brantley calls “a pulsing urban anxiety.” No, I’m afraid I found it painfully, self-consciously misguided. When Mr. Gaines’ sheepish character finally gets the girl, we would expect their long-awaited dance to enchant. But even that fails to ignite. Alas, the willing Mr. Gaines can’t really dance, and the experiment of mixing dancing actors with the highly accomplished dancers in the troupe doesn’t raise the roof.
Ms. Stroman’s choreography here is standard pastiche 1940′s jitterbug. The piece as a whole might have been created years ago, like sketches in a hermetically sealed revue. Hello! There’s a real world out here. And it has enormous problems and fears. It’s difficult, then, for me to see Contact as a modern, euphoric musical elixir, much as I’d like to. But as our beloved art-conscious Mayor doesn’t put it: Go and judge for yourself.