Review: MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE Proves that Great Dance and Music is Really All You Need

Kate Prince’s jukebox dance-musical set to Sting’s greatest hits turns raw kinetic prowess into a lively tale of our modern worries.

By: May. 05, 2024
Review: MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE Proves that Great Dance and Music is Really All You Need
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For centuries, the arts have allowed audiences to grapple with hard truths -- unfairness, grief, heartbreak, anxiety, fury -- within the confines of highly enjoyable spectacle. Message in a Bottle, playing now through May 12 at the New York City Center, carries on this tradition. 

Kate Prince’s jukebox dance-musical set to 27 Sting songs uses raw kinetic energy to tell the tale of three siblings ripped apart by global strife. The work, which premiered on the West End in 2020, is a creative take on our current refugee crisis that compels us to effect change. It’s obvious that Message in a Bottle has, well, a message, but even without a statement tucked into its very core, Message in a Bottle would still make an impact.

Review: MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE Proves that Great Dance and Music is Really All You Need The piece is, in essence, a rock concert done in the style of “So You Think You Can Dance.” It is a visually-striking, magnum-opus type work for a high-energy choreographer and her company of uber-talented, versatile dancers. Martin Terefe and Alex Lacamoire -- who recreates the breathless sound mixing he brought to “Hamilton--” ensure that every hit feels fresh. For audiences, it is enough to just be transfixed by the visual spectacle of it all while resisting the urge to hum along to “Roxanne” or “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.”

Prince and her company, ZooNation, avoid most of the creative traps that befall jukebox- and dance-musicals. There is no strange pantomiming, only limited mugging from the dancers and the narrative is relatively easy to follow. What the piece must sacrifice to shoe-horn in as many Sting hits as possible, it makes up for with breath-catching physical feats -- flips, leaps, kicks, spins, lifts. Prince maintains the works’ street-dance feel with dance circles and popping, while assistant choreographer Lukas MacFarlane finds the theatrical and whimsical elements needed to create visual diversity. Harrison Dowzell, in a featured role, deftly shifts between the two main dance styles to add gravitas to muddied, if not melodramatic scenes. Daniella May owns a narrative that makes several logical leaps to arrive at a happy ending. 

Review: MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE Proves that Great Dance and Music is Really All You Need Of course the show is not just dance, though it could be for the determined viewer, but must also tell a story. An epic journey by water, a heartfelt wedding, a lonely bed, and a devastating battle are standouts in a winding narrative of triumph over tragedy. Choosing three siblings to showcase the different faces of the refugee crisis is intriguing but, at one point, the audience must follow each sibling as they meander through their individual narratives before the penultimate number can explode on stage. 

These narrative lags and muddiness find little clarity in the scenic elements. The setting, a village called Bebka, could be in Africa, or the Middle East, or nowhere specific at all. Dancers wear bike shorts and sweats, but also linen tunics and cotton sets. Ben Stones and Andrzej  Goulding work around the confusion to create stunning scenes, including a starry night, a roiling ocean (or river or stream, we just don’t know), a red-light district, a lonely bedroom, a sun-kissed village square and a bloody battlefield. For audiences, it is enough that wherever we are, it is beautiful enough to keep us there. 

It’s clear that Message in a Bottle was designed to make an impact -- and it does. Any lack of cohesion or clarity can be explained away -- maybe it’s even intentional -- to allow audiences to confront our modern worries within the confines of a really good show. 

Tickets start at $45


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