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BWW REVIEW: THE LAST TWO PEOPLE ON EARTH Sing and Dance at A.R.T.

Conceived by Paul Ford, Taylor Mac, Mandy Patinkin and Susan Stroman; music and lyrics by Peter Allen, Thomas Haynes Bayly, Irving Berlin, Gayle Caldwell, Cy Coleman/Carolyn Leigh, Vinicius de Moraes/Baden Powell, W.S. Gilbert/Arthur Sullivan, Patty Griffin, E.Y. Harburg/Burton Lane, Jerry Herman, Eddie Lawrence, Taylor Mac, Freddie Mercury, George W. Meyer/Sam Lewis/Joe Young, Randy Newman, The Pogues/JemFiner/Shane MacGowan, R.E.M., Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein II, Harry Ruby/Bert Kalmar, Paul Simon, Samuel Francis Smith, Stephen Sondheim, James Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn, Tom Waits, Gillian Welch; director and choreographer, Susan Stroman; music direction, arrangements and orchestrations, Paul Ford; scenic design, Beowulf Boritt; costume design, William Ivey Long; lighting design, Ken Billington; sound design, Daniel J. Gerhard; production stage manager, Jason Brouillard

Performances and Tickets:

Now through May 31, American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, Mass.; tickets start at $25 and are available online at www.americanrepertorytheater.org or by calling the Box Office at 617-547-8300.

Starring Mandy Patinkin and Taylor Mac

In the famous 1960s hit "Is That All There Is?" by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Peggy Lee croons the melancholy lyric, "If that's all there is, my friend, then, let's keep dancing. Let's break out the booze and have a ball, if that's all there is." While this song ironically doesn't make it into the eclectic catalog of tunes that fuel THE LAST TWO PEOPLE ON EARTH: AN APOCALYPTIC VAUDEVILLE, currently in its world premiere at the A.R.T. in Cambridge, it could easily have become the show's theme song. When a flood of epic proportions wipes out all but two scraggly survivors, played by Mandy Patinkin and Taylor Mac, there is very little left for them to do but sing and dance.

In fact, that's pretty much all they do as THE LAST TWO PEOPLE ON EARTH. Having both serendipitously washed up on shore at the same hollowed out vaudeville house, these two Estragon and Vladimir-like hobos find a way to connect via shared songs and salvaged stage props. No dialog is spoken throughout the 80-minute one-act. Instead, Mac and Patinkin learn to communicate with each other by singing and soft-shoeing their way through 30 recognizable hits from Broadway, the Billboard charts, British pop rock and the American Songbook.

What's remarkable is that this fusion of sounds and sensibilities works seamlessly. Creators Mac, Patinkin, music director Paul Ford and director/choreographer Susan Stroman have cleverly linked what seem like separate olios or vaudeville sketches into a cohesive storyline. Ford's orchestrations lend a unifying hurdy-gurdy undercurrent to make the most disparate of songs sound like they came from the same composer, and Stroman's evocative staging and imaginative touches create an ethereal world caught between memories of the past and fear of the future. The result is a subtle but somber prophecy about the end of the world as we know it and a visceral realization by the last two people on Earth that their future is going to be exactly what they make of it. There won't be any do-overs for mankind. Their eventual deaths will be the end of civilization.

Mac and Patinkin strike just the right balance between hope and despair as they navigate their way through the apocalypse they have somehow managed to survive. At first, Mac is the strong one, gently leading Patinkin out of his malaise with upbeat songs like Thomas Haynes Bayly's "Long, Long Ago" and James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn's "Walking Happy." Patinkin's initial bigotry and mistrust are also dissolved and ultimately transformed into friendship with the comic "Nevertheless" by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar and the searing "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Later, roles are reversed when Mac becomes frightened and Patinkin soothes him with the ego-boosting "Quiet Please, There's a Lady on Stage" by Peter Allen.

What to do about sex is addressed in a charming and funny pas de deux times deux that involves Mac and Patinkin dancing erotically with bistro-style Bentwood chairs to Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh's sensuous "Real Live Girl." The theme is flirted with even further with Richard Rodgers' "The Carousel Waltz" and Tom Waits' "If You Ain't Got Nobody."

In more serious turns, Mac and Patinkin alternately lament the circumstances that led to the world's catastrophic demise and try gamely to deal with what's left of it. They turn Stephen Sondheim's "Another National Anthem" into a scathing assault on the inequities of the American Dream but then quietly accept their fate in the haunting Patty Griffin tune "Making Pies." They are likewise "all right" as they ruefully semi-smile through Paul Simon's "American Tune."

THE LAST TWO PEOPLE ON EARTH neither delves too deeply into nor dwells too long on politics, religion, war, or environmental issues. Rather, it lets the songs do the talking and the dance create the necessary mood. At first blush there doesn't seem to be much "there" there. You may find yourself asking, "Is that all there is?" But as time passes, its images linger and its impact haunts. So let's keep dancing, right on into the final sunset.

PHOTOS BY GRETJEN HELENE: Taylor Mac and Mandy Patinkin; Mandy Patinkin and Taylor Mac; Taylor Mac and Mandy Patinkin; Mandy Patinkin and Taylor Mac; Mandy Patinkin and Taylor Mac


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