BWW Reviews: ARTHUR PITA: THE WORLD'S GREATEST SHOW, Greenwich Dance Academy, June 28 2014
The cruel dance marathons popular in the USA in the 1930s have become a regular subject in theatres in recent years - and it's not hard to see why. Desperate people - jobless and feeling left without a foothold in society - line up for fifteen minutes of fame (that could take as long as fifteen weeks to accomplish) in front of dance hall audiences but a precarious rung above them in the fragile pecking order of capitalism in crisis. Meanwhile, Svengalis look on, making the real money as the misery mounts for all involved, the contestants' contrived, sentimental backstories giving way to the real pain of physical and psychological effort.
Unlike previous productions set in this shady milieu long since banned, Arthur Pita: The World's Greatest Show concentrates less on the duplicity off-stage and more on the participants on stage. This is inevitable as the show is not a musical, nor a drama, but a piece of dance-theatre, the dancers' bodies telling their stories as they strut, then bend, then buckle.
Directing a splendid jazz band who knock out some period classics alongside the excellent original score by Frank Moon, Emcee Ewan Wardrop is our oleaginous host, setting the derby (footrace) challenges with sadistic pleasure, waking the contestants from their fifteen minute catnaps with a gun. He sings well and has most of the lines, always delivered with an evil glint in his eyes. His henchmen are his Floor Judge, a scowling Alexander Varona and his stony-faced concession to the health of his competitors, Nurse Valentina Golfieri. They're scary!
But this is a show about the dancers and they're in view pretty much all the time - initially with some snazzy movers from the local community supplementing their ranks. They are all compelling - they have to be as we're with them for well over two hours, as they even stay on the dance floor during the interval. Emma Kate Nelson sings beautifully, but she is the first to be eliminated, so spared the gruesome ordeal faced by her fellow competitors, amongst whom Sonoya Mizuno and Jordi Calpe Serrats shine as a couple thrown together and married during the marathon - to boost the ratings (and humiliate them still further).
Like its original inspiration, the show has a strangely hypnotic attraction - one gets drawn into having favourites, as glimpses of personalities peep out from behind the exhausted faces and one applauds guiltily, wondering if we're just a little too close the the voyeurs who watched the real thing 80 years ago. The grind breaks from time to time, as a kind of mental release allows a dancer free rein to move without the overwhelming fatigue and without the floor judge's whistle. At that point we see the joy of dance - and the joy buried so deep in these Depression-era victims.