Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Theater Review: Ten Cents a Dance

In one of her cabaret shows, the excellent Mary Cleere Haran, who recently passed away at the age of 58, offered her theory on how Richard Rodgers’s collaborations with Lorenz Hart differed from the ones he had with Oscar Hammerstein II. Hammerstein’s lyrics, she said, tell us how “we should feel,” while Hart’s explain what “we did feel.” To better appreciate the association that Rodgers had with his first collaborator, I strongly recommend that you attend a performance of Ten Cents A Dance (The Music and Lyrics of Rodgers and Hart). I saw the show, which is on tour and en route to Broadway, at the McCarter Theatre Center at Princeton University. No musical theatre-rhapsodist should miss this production, which is performed without an intermission.

The entire evening has been conceived and directed by John Doyle. And if you’ve seen Doyle’s previous revivals on Broadway (Sweeney Todd, Company), you know that he favors a minimalistic style and that there is never an orchestra in the pit. The actors, you see, always carry and play their own instruments. All of the action here takes place in a deserted bar, which the performers enter by descending Scott Pask’s huge spiral staircase (not unlike the one he designed for the last Broadway revival of Pal Joey).

In the show’s opening moments, Jane Cox’s fine lighting design reveals a man (Malcolm Gets) who cautiously makes his way down the staircase, surveys the desolate surroundings, sits at the piano and, after several palpably hesitant moments, begins to softly play “Blue Moon.” (“ saw me standing alone,/Without a dream in my heart,/Without a love of my own.”) At that moment, his playing appears to summon the five women, all similarly outfitted and made up. And like the ghosts in the recently revived Follies, they slowly, purposefully descend the staircase. The women all share the same name: Each is called Miss Jones, and the Miss Joneses One through Five are played by Elisa Winter, Jane Pfitsch, Jessica Tyler Wright, Diana DiMarzio and Donna McKechnie respectively. You’re thinking correctly, of course, that this eponymy is a reference to the R & H classic, “Have You Met Miss Jones?” (“And we’ll keep on meeting till we die, Miss Jones and I.”)

The songs here are gusty and effervescent and cynical. LIsten, for example to “It Never Entered My Mind”: “You have what I lack myself,/And now I even have to scratch my back myself.” When Rodgers began his collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein, the tone changed to a much more sentimental key. But Hart, who died in 1943, was an extremely unhappy fellow and sentimentality was not his style. However, sophistication most certainly was. No one else could have written, “Sir Marmaduke was awf’lly tall;/He didn’t fit in bed./I solved that problem easily --/ I just removed his head.” This man was amusingly irreverent.

Don’t be fooled by those bright, witty words. Hart was, more often than not, restless and unhappy. And every member of the excellent cast succeeds in capturing the various moods, which are sometimes contradictory: “Your looks are laughable,/Unphotographable,/ Yet you’re my favorite work of art.” Hart’s lyrics, like the man himself, were filled with subtle rebuttals. In “Dancing on the Ceiling,” for example, the singer confesses: “I whisper, ‘Go away, my lover,/It’s not fair.’/But I’m so grateful to discover/He’s still there.”

After the performance, when my companion and I were leaving the Princeton campus, I thought of an appropriate line from the late, great Larry Hart to describe this theatrical offering: “Oh, what a lovely time it was,/How sublime it was, too!”