BWW Review: Ahrens and Flaherty's Stunning MARIE, DANCING STILL at the 5th Avenue Theatre
Dear Readers, in my capacity as a reviewer and as a musical theater geek at large, I've been privileged to witness more than a few out of town tryouts, those plucky wanna-be Broadway shows taking a shot in another city. Both here at home and abroad, I occasionally get a glimpse at greatness in the making, and yes, some at the 5th Avenue Theatre. I remember marveling at the glory of "Memphis" and not being able to contain my enthusiasm or stay in my seat during the curtain call of "Hairspray". But not all are winners. (I'm looking at you, "Princesses".) So, each and every time the 5th Avenue announces their next great new musical, I'm a little trepidatious even when the show is from two of my favorite composers, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, not to mention directed and choregraphed by the indomitable Susan Stroman. So along came "Little Dancer" which many whom I mentioned it to thought was an Elton John jukebox musical. (Wrong lyric, guys. That's "Tiny Dancer".) Then the show was changed to "Marie", possibly owing to such confusion and finally to "Marie, Dancing Still". But whether they want to call it "Little Dancer", or "Marie, Dancing Still" or "How Degas Got His Groove Back", what they have is a bona fide, must see, must cry throughout, accept no substitutes, hit in the making and a definite addition to my list of shows I was honored to catch early on.
Now, if you're unsure if you're familiar enough with the works of artist Edgar Degas, I advise you to look on the bedroom walls of many a teenage girl as his portraits of ballet dancers seem to be ever present. But of his works, one of is most famous is his statue "Little Dancer of Fourteen Years", a lone, raw and real image of a young ballet dancer standing, waiting to be put through her paces. And that's what our story focuses on, the supposed relationship between Degas (played by the outstanding Terrence Mann) and his model for the piece, Marie van Goethem (the unbelievably incredible Tiler Peck). Told as a memory from Adult Marie (the force of nature that is Louise Pitre), she looks back on her time as a struggling dancer in the Paris Opera Ballet. Marie has no wealthy family, her mother Martine (Karen Ziemba) is barely able to make ends meet as a laundress, and she has no patron financing her way to the top. She is simply one of the "rats" of the ballet, perpetually stuck in the ensemble. That is until a new choreographer comes along and sees that she has what it takes to play a small role in his new piece. At the same time, she meets Degas through some dubious circumstances (she steals his watch) and eventually becomes his muse for some of his most famous works. But Degas' eyesight is failing, and the demands on Marie are mounting so who knows what may happen? OK, well we know he makes the statue but the journey there is tragically beautiful.
With a book and lyrics from Ahrens and music from Flaherty, they've once again shown how their compositions have no boundaries. The tone of the Paris streets of the 1800's in the music is spot on and quite different from their other works and the songs beautifully move the story along creating a soaring story of love, hope, determination, and heartbreak. And then add into it the achingly lovely choreography from Stroman who shows that there is room for ballet on Broadway. Each dance only serves to further the song or story behind it and the final nightmare ballet is one for the ages. I was left breathless. "But Jay," you may question, "I don't really like ballet." Well, first, you haven't seen this and second, the piece goes so far beyond a "dance show" as it embodies so much humor and romance and heart that I can't imagine anyone not coming away with something. Personally, I loved it all. The gorgeous costumes from William Ivey Long, the haunting lighting and projections from Ken Billington and 59 Productions that washes over the simple yet incredibly fluid and evocative set from Beowulf Boritt, each element only serves to elevate the other and the show.
And then there's the cast, an ensemble from the Gods, each one distinct and individual and never just a moving prop in the background, and of course, adding into the stunning dance pieces and vocals. And led by the cream of the crop of Broadway and beyond. Ziemba as Marie's broken mother brings so much underlying sadness and despair covered by bravado that it practically hurts. And when coupled with Marie's sisters, the young and hopeful Charlotte (Noelle Hogan) and the doing what it takes to get by Antoinette (Jenny Powers), you see the portrait of a family who's been through it all and somehow made it through. The astonishing Dee Hoty as Mary Cassatt, Degas' long time friend, has a smaller role but no less vital and brings her all to it. And Kyle Harris as Christian, the new love in Marie's life, is delightful and adorable as he brings in a wonderfully quirky bit of chemistry with Peck making their relationship not only believable but essential.
But, as the title suggests, this is a show about Marie, and naturally Degas and I can't imagine three better performers or performances to spotlight this story. Peck is an absolute marvel. The definition of a triple threat and then some as she flawlessly sings and dances throughout the show with seeming ease and brings a sense of joy to the character of young Marie that infuses the show with light, even in the darkest moments. On the other side of this stunning coin, we have Pitre as Adult Marie who manages to convey the story and the character with such worldliness and heartache but still retaining that spark of her younger self. And Mann as Degas is a performance you won't soon forget as he brings layer upon layer into the role making the final moments even more soul crushing. (Have I mentioned you'll need tissues for this one?) And his chemistry with the young Marie, with a tender and touching Father/Daughter feel, is palpable.
Yes, Dear Readers, I am gushing over this show. I sat there, in the dark, crying, not only due to the beauty and emotion of the show but also, it's how I get when I'm seeing a show with this much potential. Sure, there are some issues that need to be addressed as with any new show. The acts take a little bit of time to really get their momentum but once they do, hold on to your seat as you're in for an emotional roller coaster that will nestle its way into your heart and find an enchanting forever-home. And so, (you can see it coming, can't you?) with my three-letter rating system (you know it's going to happen), I give "Marie, Dancing Still" (here it comes) at the 5th Avenue Theatre a "what are you waiting for, why haven't you ordered your tickets yet???" WOW! No really, why haven't you ordered your tickets yet???! I mean I guess you could wait until it's on Broadway and has won all the Tony's and tickets are impossible to get or you could see it here, at home, where afterwards you can lord over all your friends, "Oh yeah, I saw that one in Seattle BEFORE it went to Broadway."
"Marie, Dancing Still" performs at the 5th Avenue Theatre through April 14th. For tickets or information contact the 5th Avenue Theatre box office at 206-625-1900 or visit them online at www.5thavenue.org.