CONTACT: Naomi Hubert in the clingy yellow dress is simply irresistible.
For a Broadway show, contact is closer to Twyla Tharp than George M. Cohan. Tharp hit the street in 2002 with her own “dance play,” Movin’ Out, which was set to Billy Joel songs pounded out by an on-stage piano man. But Susan Stroman’s 1999 contact, seen here in a snazzy revival by North Shore Music Theatre (through June 29), was first. The show — really three vignettes linked by a themes of loneliness, liberation, and play — won the 2000 Tony Award for Best Musical. Some were outraged, since nobody sings and the music, which ranges from Tchaikovsky to the Beach Boys, is pre-recorded. But whether contact is or isn’t a musical, it is an original entertainment, and for all its synchronistic slickness, it’s far from heartless. And at North Shore Music Theatre, where Stroman’s direction and choreography have been replicated by original cast member Tomé Cousin, the balance between showmanship and human need is maintained. Some adjustments have been made to accommodate NSMT’s theater in the round, but by and large, this is the contact Stroman made.
Commissioned to create an original work for Lincoln Center, Stroman and minimal-book writer John Weidman began with the title tale. They were inspired by Stroman’s late-night meander into a meat-packing-district pool hall doing after-hours duty as a swing-dance venue, and by the Ambrose Bierce story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” where a man in a noose escapes into dream. And “contact,” which comprises the entire second act, is the main event. The shorter first-act vignettes were invented to further the themes of “swinging” and the freeing power of dance.
The curtain raiser, “Swinging,” is a brief dance sketch with a Pinteresque twist, inspired by the 1768 Fragonard painting Les hasards heureux de l’escarpolette and set to Stéphane Grappelli’s jazz rendering of Rodgers & Hart’s “My Heart Stood Still.” In a sylvan glen, a servant pushes a peach-clad lass on a swing as her aristocratic admirer reclines on the ground taking peeks up her dress. Flirtation ensues, but when the boyfriend goes off to fetch more wine, the swing becomes a trapeze for a high-flying copulative encounter between lady and valet. It’s a buoyant, gymnastic affair performed with soaring, ducking precision by Sean Ewing and Ariel Shepley before Jake Pfarr returns to add an unexpected flourish to the fantasy.
“Did You Move?” hurtles forward to an Italian restaurant in Queens circa 1954, where a bit of statuary from the first piece becomes part of the décor. Enter a Sopranos-esque couple out to enjoy buffet night, she a nervous talker swathed in gray-blue organza, he a grim controller sporting a glower. “Don’t talk, don’t smile, don’t frickin’ move,” the husband (a brute Steve Luker) instructs his cowed wife before trudging off in search of manicotti. Whereupon she leans her head back, gracefully relaxes her shoulders, and takes off on the first of several madcap balletic escapes set to Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and Bizet, the headwaiter (a fleet, insouciant Matt Rivera) hurling his tray aside to partner her in fiercely whimsical pas de deux complete with lifts, jétés, and climbing up one’s fellow diners. But for all the nimbly danced craziness, you don’t forget that at the center of the piece is an abused woman whose emancipation is temporary and imagined. And if Sally Mae Dunn is not Broadway’s Karen Ziemba, whose trembling arms evoked a pathos that was chilling, she’s a lithe dancer who brings both piquancy and a comedienne’s chops to the part.
In “contact,” Tony winner Jarrod Emick plays Michael Wiley, a successful ad man who, following the score of his fifth Clio, goes home to kill himself. Perhaps it’s the distraction of a ringing telephone whose answering machine is alternately besieged by threatening complaints from the lady downstairs who wants him to get a rug and his agent inviting him to the swing-dance dive, but Michael has little luck putting his lights out. Eventually he winds up — if only in his mind — at the bar full of swing dancers dominated by a cold-smoldering Girl in a Yellow Dress, who accepts and rejects partners with sensuous hauteur.
Bewitched, bothered, etc., Michael is nonetheless handicapped by the fact that he doesn’t dance. A lonely man chained to language, he can save himself only by assimilating the rhythm and letting himself go. Even then it isn’t easy, as the dances — to music ranging from “Runaround Sue” and “Simply Irresistible” to the climactic “Sing, Sing, Sing,” with its squealing jazz horns — escalate into trials wherein the ensemble serves as an undulating obstacle course between Michael and the sexy creature in the clingy canary. Deborah Yates, the original Girl in a Yellow Dress, was taller than anyone else on stage, and her legs were like stilts. Naomi Hubert is slighter, but her cocked legs are long, her back is exquisitely arched, and her dance moves are knife-sharp. And Emick, without turning “contact” into some high-stepping Hamlet, conveys the desperation of a man driven rather than drawn to dance.