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Vol. LXV, No. 38
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
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Music/Theater

ROME IS NOW IN CHARGE OF PALMYRA: Emperor Aurelian (Ken Schwarz, right) addresses Queen Zenobia of Palmyra (Carolyn Vasko, center), her handmaiden Penelope (Katharine Bavoso, center back), and her general Zabdas (Jason Szamreta, left).

“Isn’t It Romantic?” Also Clever, Sophisticated, and Inventive; McCarter Opens Season With Unique Rodgers and Hart Revue

Donald Gilpin

It starts with the shadowy scene of what looks like an empty nightclub after hours. A man appears from above, slowly, hesitantly, thoughtfully, silently descending a long winding staircase. He’s well dressed, in a dark suit and tie, but looks worn, tired, troubled. He approaches the piano, but seems reluctant to play. He finally starts to improvise, as five women — or are they all the same woman at different stages of her life, populating the world of his imagination and memory? — descend the staircase to take the stage.

A song takes shape, seemingly created out of his reveries:

You saw me standing alone

Without a dream in my heart,

Without a love of my own.

Blue Moon,

You knew just what I was there for.

You heard me saying a prayer for

Someone I really could care for.

Over the next 80 minutes Johnny (Malcolm Gets) travels on a psychological journey — romantic, sometimes joyful, often sad and painful — as he relives his relationship with this woman, Miss Jones (Donna McKechnie, Diana DiMarzio, Jessica Taylor Wright, Jane Pfitsch, and Elisa Winter).

The five Miss Joneses (as in Rodgers and Hart’s “Have You Met Miss Jones?”), spanning four decades in age, share equally in the recalling of the relationship. At times they act as a chorus. At times they interact individually with each other or with Johnny. At times they take up a variety of musical instruments to accompany Johnny or to display their own individual musical and emotional attitudes.

The mood varies as widely and fascinatingly as the thirty-four Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart songs that constitute the book of this show, from ”Blue Moon” to “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” to “Falling in Love With Love,” “My Funny Valentine,” “My Heart Stood Still,” and “The Lady is a Tramp.”

This musical voyage, Ten Cents a Dance, playing at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through October 9, is the conception of British-born director John Doyle and is co-produced by the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where it received rave reviews last month. Winner of a Tony Award for his direction of a revival of Sweeney Todd in 2005, Mr. Doyle is known for his unusual performance strategy of having all his actors accompany themselves on musical instruments.

Even more remarkable here, however, is the way Mr. Doyle and his exceptional ensemble deliver the words and music of this magnificent Rodgers and Hart song-cycle. Rodgers and Hart collaborated through the 1920s and 1930s up until the death of Mr. Hart in 1943. Mr. Rodgers later on gained even greater fame when he teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein II. Rodgers and Hart’s music has lived on more vibrantly in their individual numbers, interpreted by a variety of famous soloists and nightclub singers, than in their seldom revived musicals (On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, Pal Joey, and 25 others).

In Ten Cents a Dance, Mr. Doyle has assembled an impressive display of talent — dramatic, vocal, and instrumental. Many prefer Rodgers and Hart’s edgy, sometimes playful, surprising, often sad or cynical tone to the more popular, more consistently cheerful Rodgers and Hammerstein repertoire, but even devoted Rodgers and Hart fans will find something new and enticing here. These arrangements of the music and these evocative performances bring out interesting nuances in the music, intriguing wit and meaning in the lines and the characters’ relationships.

Ten Cents a Dance may hold less appeal for audience members who are less enamored of the Rodgers and Hart fare or less familiar with these classic numbers of more than 70 years ago. Those looking for a plot or even for a traditional musical revue may find themselves frustrated here. Or they might be delightfully surprised to find themselves in this evocative, dreamscape created by Mr. Doyle and his ensemble of six in the wistful, regretful, romantic realm of these unsurpassed lyrics and music.

It is difficult to imagine, for example, how anyone could not get caught up in the enthralling world of Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered as the five Miss Joneses, in a brilliantly illuminating performance of one of the great numbers of 20th century musical comedy, exchange their harrowing tales from the front lines of romance:

I’m wild again, beguiled again

A simpering, whimpering child again.

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.

Ms. McKechnie, a major celebrity ever since her Tony Award-winning performance as Cassie in the original 1975 A Chorus Line, holds the stage with charisma and authority here as Miss Jones Five, but from the young, bright-eyed Miss Jones One (Elisa Winter) through the increasingly cynical, seasoned and mature representatives of this chorus girl of Johnny’s imagination, the individual performances are perfectly blended into the ensemble.

Scott Peck’s haunting nightclub set, richly illuminated by Jane Cox’s lighting design provides a richly nuanced venue for these performers as they embody the Rodgers and Hart characters with their wide-ranging palette of emotions.

“Isn’t It Romantic?” as Rodgers and Hart wrote. But also sad and upsetting and maddening, as well as exhilarating and endlessly intriguing.

“Ten Cents a Dance” will run through October 9 at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org for tickets, show times, and further information.

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