'Syncopation' Dances to the Stars - and Moon
Syncopation by Allan Knee
Directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill
Choreographer, Adam Pelty; Scene Designer, Roman Tatarowicz; Costume Designer, Thom Heyer; Lighting Designer, Annmarie Duggan; Sound Designer, Jane Shaw; Stage Manager, Emily F. McMullen
Adam Pelty as Henry Ribolow
Stacey Harris as Anna Bianchi
Performances through April 15, 2007 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre
Box Office 978-654-4MRT -or- www.merrimackrep.org
Syncopation is a delight! From the opening strains of the music of Scott Joplin, Adam Pelty and Stacey Harris dance the night away and melodiously transport us to 1911 New York City on the stage of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre. With flawless direction, inventive choreography, and creative design across the board, this play does not miss a beat.
Henry Ribolow (Pelty) is a Polish-Jewish immigrant who works as a meatpacker by day, but yearns to become a famous ballroom dancer and tour the world. All he needs is the girl, so he places a classified advertisement which asks, "Why walk through life when you can dance?" He waits in his dingy sixth-floor (108 steps!) walkup for the perfect partner to arrive. Anna Bianchi (Harris) is a little less than perfect as she has little talent and lots of reluctance. She doesn't seem to know why she is there, but it does offer a diversion from her life as a garment beader. She agrees to be Henry's partner, although she keeps their weekly meetings a secret from both her father and her fiancé.
Henry meets Anna's skepticism and self-doubt head on, assuring her that they will become as popular as Vernon and Irene Castle, the most famous ballroom dancers of that era (immortalized on film by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers). He is a ray of sunshine, energetic and passionate about dancing. He wants something "magnificent" for himself and for her, and promises that they will dance for royalty. However, they must overcome the mores of the times as Anna is a "proper" young woman and concerned about appearances. Henry waits six weeks before suggesting that they touch while dancing.
There is a great deal of exposition in the first act, but the playwright cleverly uses the device of having Henry and Anna each break the fourth wall to let us know more about their lives away from the dance studio. She talks about her co-workers and the so-called Odd Women, "a group of women with bobbed hair - with attitudes and opinions I've never heard before." Ribolow introduces us to the Radicals of Rivington St., his boss, and his mother, who keeps threatening to die. They get to know each other better through their dancing and it shows as their movements become more synchronized and their relationship more harmonious. By the end of Act One, they conquer their fears and perform on the Boardwalk of Coney Island and realize that there is chemistry between them.
In the second act, Henry and Anna have great success and receive much acclaim, leading to more personal challenges as she is "discovered" by other men. If Act One is defined as "boy meets girl, boy gets girl," then Act Two is "boy loses girl, boy gets girl back." It may sound formulaic, but in the hands of Allan Knee and the MRT team, it is a far cry from that description. There is enough conflict and tension throughout to keep the audience guessing about how it will all play out in the end, and the liberal use of music (approximately sixty minutes) gives Syncopation a pleasant ebb and flow.
Beautifully danced and acted by the cast of two, they fill the stage, yet give the feeling of a larger company. Henry pantomimes dancing with the ghosts of famous women who had supposedly practiced in his studio in the past, as well as other prospective partners who answer his newspaper ad. When the couple takes their act out in public, he describes the reactions of the appreciative onlookers. Perhaps it seems that the audience is part of the cast, too, because of the breaking of the fourth wall and the strong affection we develop for the characters.
While employing a unit set, the design team takes us to additional locales by the use of narration, lighting changes, and sound effects. A horizontal pole with handle straps descends from overhead to suggest the trolley ride to Coney Island. While we have to imagine a mirrored wall (the fourth wall), the dance studio is suitably grimy and sparingly furnished with a Victrola, a crate of records, one chair, and a pot-bellied stove.
Thom Heyer provides exquisite costumes befitting a beader in the garment industry for Anna, including decorated stockings that become visible when she hitches up her skirt for better movement, and a beautiful wedding gown and veil. The simple period attire worn by Henry is appropriate for him as he struggles to pay the rent for the studio. Dance is his passion, not fashion. However, once they win their first contest, Henry dresses up in a three-piece suit and tops off the outfit with a snazzy boater.
The choreography and execution of it by Pelty and Harris is nothing short of breathtaking. Henry and Anna start off unskilled and stilted, struggling to find their rhythm and how to fit together. As their practice pays off and they warm to each other, the actors crank it up a notch and strut their stuff. By the end of Act One, they pull out all the stops for a steamy tango, which is outdone only by the finale. Regardless of the musical style, be it rag, waltz, or foxtrot, Pelty and Harris exhibit perfect posture, fantastic extension and lines, and a joie de vivre that made me want to get up and twirl around the stage with them. These dancers have reunited from the Capital Repertory Theatre (Albany, NY) 2005 production of Syncopation and the MRT audience reaps the benefits.
Playwright Knee has crafted a charming story cum history lesson. By introducing us to his immigrant blue-collar characters, we learn of their plight in the early 20th century, a theme which resonates today. While the music and dancing form the backbone of the play, it is not a musical in the traditional sense. However, the song and dance styles evoke the period, at the same time as they show us the importance of passion and taking a risk in the lives of these two people. In the end, a dingy 6th floor walkup on the Lower East Side becomes a palatial royal ballroom, lit by massive chandeliers, without so much as a fairy godmother in sight. Love, music, and rhythm transform the room - and Henry and Anna - into something they had only been able to dream about.