By Kay Kipling
The Asolo Repertory Theatre and the Sarasota Ballet’s eagerly awaited collaboration on their season opening production of the Tony Award winner Contact is finally here, and for those of us who wondered just how this hybrid would perform, the answer seems to be: pretty well.
After leading off previous seasons with more traditional musicals, like last year’s Barnum, the Asolo Rep decided to do something different this year, bringing to life this not-often-seen piece by Broadway choreographer Susan Stroman (with book by John Weidman). Let me be clear: The reason it’s not often seen has everything to do with the challenge of pulling off the demanding dance movements Stroman (and in this case her surrogate, director Tome Cousin) has staged while still telling compelling stories, and nothing to do with whether or not the work is artistically viable.
That it is “nontraditional” is obvious from the first in this two-act (but three-scene) musical, which does not rely on live musicians but rather on a wide range of recorded music. Contact opens with a piece called Swinging that’s based on a Fragonard painting of a girl on a swing. Here that girl is a delightfully giddy Ariel Shepley, who’s both coy and comic as she first plays the coquette with an aristocrat (Matt Baker) and then, when he goes off to find another bottle of wine, gets up to all kinds of things on that swing with an acrobatic servant (Sean Ewing).
That’s a short piece set to a Rodgers and Hart tune, My Heart Stood Still. Fittingly, perhaps, this amuse bouche is followed by a saltier course (think of it as an antipasto) served up in an Italian restaurant in 1950s Queens, where a nervous but engaging wife (Nadine Isenegger) and her tough guy (make that wise guy) husband (Asolo regular James Clarke) are having dinner. She tries anxiously to make conversation (this piece and the Act II scene do have dialogue as well as dance); all he cares about is snagging a dinner roll from one of the parade of waiters who dash through the dining room. “Don’t move,” he threatens her as he gets up to go the buffet; but she’s immediately on her feet, dancing out one fantasy after another set to music by Grieg and Tchaikovsky, with the enthusiastic participation of the headwaiter (the Sarasota Ballet’s Octavio Martin) and other customers. In this scene, Isenegger, who’s irresistible, is also high-flying and free–until her husband comes back.
The last piece of the evening (our main course), Contact, is the complex synthesis of the theme the overall show is addressing–the need for connection, for touch, between human beings–utilizing the whole cast in exhilarating swing numbers set to songs by the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Dion and the Beach Boys, among others. Contact also tells the most dramatic story, this one about a 40-ish director of commercials (Fletcher McTaggart), who’s finding his life empty despite some professional success. After picking up an award one evening, he heads back to his sterile Manhattan apartment, listens to his voicemails, and promptly tries to commit suicide in a variety of ways.
He’s foiled by complaints about noise from a downstairs neighbor and by a call from his agent that somehow leads him to a dance club where everyone but him is dancing up a storm. He wants to dance–desperately–especially after the knockout Girl in the Yellow Dress (Shannon Lewis, who nails the part) makes an appearance. He’s drawn to her, of course, like every other man in the club; but if he hopes to make any sort of connection with her he’s going to have to get out there and take a chance on the dance floor.
The ensuing struggle plays out with a lot of energetic dancing on the ensemble’s part and a lot of hesitation on his (a struggle that may be a bit repetitive, although the dancing is great). I won’t give away the ending, but chances are you, like me, saw it coming.
In addition to offering exciting dance numbers, a visual treat in much of the costuming (by William Ivey Long) and an intriguing cast made up of classically trained dancers, Broadway hoofers and some actors not known primarily for their footwork, Contact does, in the end, make a definite connection with its audience. Will that audience continue to come after opening night, for a show that’s a different animal than Asolo Rep crowds are used to seeing? We’ll know in a month’s time; the show runs through Nov. 22 on the mainstage.
For tickets call 351-8000 or go to asolo.org.