Contact, the Tony Award-winning musical by Susan Stroman and John Weidman, rocked Broadway ever so uneasily a few seasons back when its premise dictated previously released music as its score and pre-recorded music as its accompaniment. That the evening comprised three thematically related dance sequences rather than the traditional music and dance and dialogue (or combinations of those elements) was yet another unique departure. Having had my first opportunity to see (and hear) this much talked of musical at the Canon Theatre, where it runs until December 15, I can say that for all its unconventional structure it is still a Broadway baby.
Three separate stories are linked by their fascination with sexual expression or the lack thereof. In the first, and shortest, of the scenarios, a Fragonard painting comes to life. A luscious young woman swings happily, propelled by a serving man, while her gallant gazes lovingly at her. (Or, as we think about these players afterward, perhaps the servant and the master are trying on each other's roles.) Picnic accoutrements, including champagne and grapes, feed the appetites of man, woman and servant, and when one man leaves in pursuit of more refreshment, other man and lady swing, literally and sexually. The athletic tricks that follow define Stroman's gift for exploiting every stage prop at her disposal. What begins as flirtation moves onto consummation. And as long as the couple is on the swing the story works well.
The second story, Did You Move?, is a scenario that refuses to admit its own limitations. A husband and wife arrive at an Italian restaurant (the time setting is 1954, for reasons that appear to have more to do with fashion than anything else) and we soon discover that he is a foul-mouthed, snarling pig. As he comes and goes, trying to find dinner rolls to accompany his meal, he orders his wife, "Don't move!" The words are ugly and the man's delivery is chilling. Freed from her husband, the wife is released to her daydreams, played out in a series of dances that involve the headwaiter, other customers and, finally, the entire staff. Meg Howrey, as the wife, conveys terror and tenderness as she launches into each fantasy, and her puppy dog smile only makes worse the final image of a woman doomed to misery..
The final story, the title piece about the girl in the yellow dress, is set in contemporary Manhattan. The world is the flip image of Sex in the City, for here is an after hours club where the habitues are losers all, faceless bodies that speak through dance and resist any personal connection. Of the three stories, Contact is the only one scripted in a traditional way and so it's not surprising that it resonates more deeply than the others.
Michael is an award-winning ad guy for whom work is synonymous with life. Until one night when, after receiving another trophy, he plunges to the dark corners of his soul and decides that suicide is better than another empty accolade in a world of his own making, a world in which he is alone. But no sooner does suicide come to mind, than he resorts to joining friends at a bar. And though he never finds his friends he does find the girl in the yellow dress, a fantasy creation that turns him on to music and dance and, through these, to his own passions. It's a neat idea because, after the first two vignettes, we are finally able to see into the hearts of people we might want to spend some time with.
Daniel McDonald is fine as the smug ad executive and Colleen Dunn is absolutely radiant as the girl he meets. While he does his best to surrender to impulses that money and Manhattan have done their damndest to sublimate forever, she epitomizes the word 'cool' without losing our interest for a moment. The dancing girl is tall, with extension that literally leaves the viewer slack-jawed. And casting the ad guy with an actor rather than a dancer is another Stroman touch that deepens the experience because we have the chance to meet him as a person and not as a phenomenon.
Contact, like the restaurant scene that precedes it, wears itself out before the final curtain. But unlike the husband-wife ballet, the ad guy-yellow dress pairing suggests room for hope and characters who might some day get beyond the distance of fear enough to open their hearts and minds to the possibility of, well, contact.
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