BWW Reviews: Ahrens and Flaherty's LITTLE DANCER Is One to Remember at Kennedy Center

BWW Reviews: Ahrens and Flaherty's LITTLE DANCER Is One to Remember at Kennedy Center

Inspired by Edgar Degas' famous sculpture of a 14 year-old dancer, Little Dancer is one of those kinds of musicals that you don't see much anymore. It's also the kind of musical that we desperately need on Broadway today where splash and spectacle and known quantities are the name of the name. Featuring an original book and lyrics by Tony Award winner Lynn Ahrens and music by her longtime writing partner, fellow Tony Award winner Stephen Flaherty, this simply lovely offering near perfectly melds the worlds of musical theatre and ballet and uses those two art forms in the best way possible to tell a charming story. Who better to be at the helm of bringing these two worlds together than Susan Stroman? Strongly versed in both art forms with a clear love for both, her direction, along with her choreography, offers some of the best work I've seen her do in years.

Press materials indicate the story we see emerge on stage is "part fact, part fiction." Ahrens draws inspiration from Degas famous sculpture of a virtually unknown young dancer striking a pose and seeks to uncover who she was. We meet the subject - Marie van Goethem - first as an adult (multiple Tony Award nominee Rebecca Luker). Degas has died and she wants to finally get a look at the piece of art that likely changed the course of her life. This provides an opportunity for her to take a step back into time and consider what she experienced as a teen dancer.

Young Marie (New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck) is not what one would call your average ballerina. Part of this is pedigree, but personality also plays a part. She comes from a broken home and does what she has to do to get by and, in particular, provide for her younger sister Charlotte (the incredibly talented Sophia Anne Caruso). If this means stealing, so be it. Her mother (versatile Tony Award winner Karen Ziemba), with a love for all things alcohol, certainly can't provide for them. Although her older sister Antoinette (a vocally-strong and very memorable Jenny Powers) provides money to the family on a regular basis, it's not enough, especially when the matriarch of the family has a habit of wasting the money that does come in. Making it a dancer, particularly in the privileged-filled world of the Paris Opera Ballet, isn't easy. It's probably even more challenging for someone who lacks the connections and has to work a part time job as a laundress to help make ends meet for her family. However, she's determined to do what she loves to do and use her talent as a way to get her and her sister out of a life of poverty.

A chance encounter with artist Edgar Degas (Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines) - who, like Marie, is also a bit of an oddity, with a passion for art, and a fiery personality - sets her life on a different path and adds a new layer of complication, but also possibility. A story emerges about this 'rough around the edges' dancer figuring out who she is in the drama-filled backstage area of the Paris ballet, onstage, and outside of the theatre in the context of her relationship with Degas and others. It's also a story about dealing with the long-lasting consequences of one's actions.

Admittedly, Ahrens' book has a little bit of all of the plot points one would expect about a young girl trying to make it in the cut-throat world of ballet. There are a few encounters with a snotty and entitled, rich ballerina (Esmé Pruneau, played by Polly Baird), a strict dance teacher (Madame Théodore, played by Michele Ragusa), and a slimy, rich benefactor of the ballet (Philippe de Marchal, played by Sean Martin Hingston). There's also a love interest who happens to be a musician (Christian, played by Kyle Harris). However, Ahrens does well to interweave all of these elements together in a way that makes the story fundamentally seem like something we haven't seen or heard before. All of those tasked with bringing her story to life also infuse it with honesty and humanity, which makes it all the more engaging. Likewise, the tale of Marie's relationship with Edgar Degas could have treaded into a rehashing of Sunday in the Park with George at some level, but Ahrens avoids that trap. The relationship between the two emerges naturally in Ahrens' script and Gaines and Peck do well to make it believable as they bicker and argue but find common ground.

What sets this story apart from many others, of course, is also the interesting mixture of heavy doses of musical theatre songs and ballet.

Many of the songs are used to provide commentary on what Marie is experiencing at any given moment rather than move the action along in direct way. This works well for a story that's largely a flashback. Luker, in fine voice as always, achieves an emotional connection with her many musical numbers. This makes it easy for us, as observers, to connect with how her younger self felt at age 14, on the cusp of adulthood with many challenges - but also opportunities - in front of her. Whether the melodious "C'est le Ballet" - a wonderful introduction to the world of the Paris Opera Ballet - or the Act II opener, "Looking Back at Myself," they are not only pleasant to listen to, but provide insight into our protagonist and the world she inhabits. A delightfully large nineteen-piece orchestra - with a sufficient number of strings, no less - plays Doug Besterman and Larry Hochman's pleasing orchestrations with energy and technical proficiency and only add to the enjoyment. None of the songs are particularly show-stopping, but they are consistently good with varying, but appropriate styles. Flaherty's music is contemporary sounding enough to engage modern audiences, but not so contemporary that it's at odds with a story about 19th century Paris.

Not unexpectedly, Peck, a strong actress and reasonably adequate singer, shines the most when she's dancing. A well-choreographed and unique dream ballet sequence late in Act II allows her to showcase an impressive technical ability and the equally enviable talent of using physical movement to its fullest advantage to explore a range of emotions - from joy to pain and everything in between. While some might argue that the ballet stops the action, I see it as not only something that's necessary in a musical that's memory-based, but also something that helps set the musical apart from many others about the creation of art. Other dance moments featuring a strong ensemble of young talented ballerinas also prove delightful and well-placed within the dance-centric story.

Stroman and her team of designers deliver production values that are worthy of the Broadway stage, but do not rely on dazzling spectacle to make an impression. Whether it's Beowulf Boritt's art-inspired scenic design, William Ivey Long's colorful and detailed costumes, Ken Billington's mood-enhancing lighting design, or Benjamin Pearcy's unique projection design, all serve to remind us that the musical is essentially about art. The beautiful design work proves memorable on a standalone basis, but also the way that it complements the telling of the story rather than overshadows it. That's a rarity in the modern musical, at least on Broadway.

All in all, I urge thee to go to Kennedy Center and check this one out. In a town that has seen more than a few shows with Broadway aspirations in the last few years, this is one of the strongest ones I have seen. I can only hope it has a future be it on Broadway or elsewhere. A clear labor of love, it deserves to be appreciated.

Running Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes including an intermission.

Little Dancer runs through November 30, 2014 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts - 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-467-4600 or purchase them online.

Photo: Tiler Peck and company (by Paul Kolnik).

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From This Author Jennifer Perry

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