Thursday, April 11, 2019

“Marie, Dancing Still” Still Needs Steps, But Beautiful Design Work

Cast of Marie, Dancing Still (Paul Kolnik)
Marie, Dancing Still
5th Avenue Theatre
Through April 14, 2019

It’s very apparent why young Tiler Peck was cast to dance the lead role as 14-year-old Marie, the piquant young ballet dancer, in the new musical, Marie, Dancing Still. She is energetic, charismatic, and extraordinarily watchable. Peck makes ballet dancing look easy! (There’s a line in the book – the script – about art/ballet looking easy when you don’t know anything about it, and it being very hard to do when you’ve practiced it forever…)

Peck, who is in just about every scene in this long musical, plays a poor ballet dancer whose mother had also danced but not been able to afford to stay in it long enough to “succeed” (meaning make a living that way). Her older sister, Antoinette (Jenny Powers) also didn’t succeed and now it’s Marie’s turn to try. Their hardscrabble life, with hard-drinking laundress mother (Karen Ziemba), is a precarious existence where small problems could spiral them into even worse circumstances.

 The main thrust of this story, though, is that Marie becomes the inspiration for a famous sculpture now known as Edgar Degas’ “Little Dancer Aged 14”. The sculpture was the initial moment of impulse for creating the musical. Both director Susan Stroman and book/lyric writer Lynn Aherns found a mutual attraction for that sculpture and the mystery surrounding the young girl’s fate.

What is known is that Marie van Geothem was a real young ballet dancer in Paris and did pose for Degas (played here by Terrence Mann). Like many boundary-challenging art pieces, this sculpture caused an unwelcome stir in 1881 and was hidden away for many years. The real Marie disappeared from historic notice shortly after the sculpture debuted. However, her little sister Charlotte (Noelle Hogan) did finally achieve what the family was hoping for – a paying position as a prima ballerina.

The musical writers decided to sort of “Disney-fy” the stories here, avuncularizing Degas, who was known to be a difficult man, and painting Marie into a snow-white corner (sorry couldn’t help it) by showing her trying to remain chaste, though to survive she does a little pocket-picking, but just to eat. The musical reassures us that Marie didn’t die, because they have her show up years later (Louise Pitre) to reacquaint herself with artist Mary Cassatt (Dee Hoty).

In fact, the family’s circumstances were likely quite grim, and tiny ballet students were preyed upon routinely by rich male “patrons” of the arts. The complicity of the administration of the ballet school assured that the girls were virtually completely unprotected. Combined with the general danger of poverty, the bad luck of being born a female created huge survival incentives to accept sexual attention or have it thrust upon one.

Certainly, there seems a rich tapestry of history to draw upon to tell a story, even musically. The combination of ballet, recruiting a principal dancer like Peck, and creating an amazing story-ballet for the second act, are all reasons to celebrate the idea of this piece.

The current production at the 5th Avenue is a sumptuous visual treat with wonderful color animations splashed across the back walls of the set (by Beowulf Boritt) and opportunities to feel many emotions, both light and dark, for the audiences. The costumes are entrancing (by William Ivey Long) and the ballet choreography by Stroman is just right on point, with a bevy of talented young women, and a few men, showing their abilities to sing, dance, and act.

Upon reflection, though, it’s hard to locate the reason for the story. If it’s Marie, herself, why does the rest of her life disappear into a sort of “Life happens” answer from older Marie to Mary Cassatt’s question of “Where have you been?” If they are imagining this young girl’s life, why do they limit themselves to just this slice of time, when the mystery is more what happened to her later?

From what they’ve established in this piece, Charlotte’s successful ballet career seems like a compelling idea for why she succeeded and Marie did not. Maybe contrasting the two careers might be of interest. Alternatively, they could imagine anything they want to about Marie’s life-after-statue, since there is no one to tell them otherwise. There are also all kinds of hints of relationships with the girls around Marie, both in her family and in her corps of dancers. There are many different ways of telling her story.

Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty created one of the most moving modern musicals with Ragtime, with compelling stories, strong characters, and beautiful and accessible songs. So far, Marie has no real songs that sound like they can succeed outside the confines of the musical, nor are they memorable for an audience to hum outside the theater.

As far as elements of the current script that could be dispensed with: no one cares about Degas’ eye appointments. We get that his sight is failing. The love interest is only useful because Kyle Harris is clearly a talent to watch. Most of the songs have too many verses and too many of the songs are sung by characters that are peripheral – including Degas.

And to keep? Using the dream-story ballet to focus their story might be one way to look at the next iteration. That moment, culminating in Peck’s assuming the pose of the statue, is definitely a show-stopper, in a good way.

Deciding why it’s important to tell this particular tale might help refine it. And if there is any way at least one song could be created that embodies that reason and is musically accessible to the audience (and less operatic), that’s the possible cherry on the cake.

Having dissected all that, this production still is attractive to families, especially with little dancers, who can identify with the hard work of Marie and her struggle to maintain what it takes to perform. And there’s Tiler Peck to dance for you. That’s a treat that alone might be worth the price of the ticket.

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