`Contact' gets into the swing of things

Songs, dance moves put a lot of pep in musical's steps

Theater Review

May 10, 2002|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Let's get the ground rules established right away. Contact is a musical in which there is no singing. It hardly has any dialogue. And while we're at it, you should know that this Broadway show relies on taped music rather than a live band.

Does all that sound like a turnoff? Well, guess what, Contact is a clever and classy show whose almost nonstop dancing makes it a must-see at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre. It's easy to see why it won four Tony Awards in 2000, including best musical.

Director and choreographer Susan Stroman has described Contact as a "dance play." It's not a traditional book musical, not a conventional play, not a standard musical revue. Structurally, its three otherwise distinct segments thematically share an interest in the varying degrees to which the ever-moving characters amorously connect with each other.

Stroman's choreography, with its emphasis on physically linking and then pulling apart male and female dancers within the 26-member company, creates the body language through which this theme is expressed. Spoken language also factors, if sparely, into the equation. Writer John Weidman's dialogue helps flesh out the vignettes, though sometimes he's overly obvious.

What really makes the show cohere is its wildly eclectic mix of music: Dean Martin, Rodgers and Hart, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Van Morrison, Edvard Grieg, the Beach Boys and more. The musical point is that while cultural fashions change, the need for romantic contact is a constant through the ages. As Dean Martin reminds us: "You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You."

The time-hopping nature of the show is immediately proclaimed in the opening segment, "Swinging." Inspired by Jean-Honore Fragonard's 1767 painting The Swing, in which a stylishly dressed young woman swings above male suitors in a pastoral setting, the segment involves two Frenchmen (Keith Kuhl and Dan Sutcliffe) and a Girl on a Swing (Mindy Franzese Wild) changing partners about as often as Stroman can pack into the 10-minute running time of this curtain raiser.

Although this trio remains in 18th-century costume through all their swinging, the musical accompaniment is a different and much more modern kind of swinging: the so-called hot jazz of a 20th-century French violinist, the late Stephane Grappelli.

The second segment, "Did You Move?," is set in an Italian restaurant in New York in 1954. An Eisenhower-era wife (Meg Howrey) is being graciously submissive to her brusque husband (Adam Dannheisser). This husband is such a monster that the wife dreams about escaping into the more romantic arms of the headwaiter (Gary Franco), with classical music accompanying their ballet-style partnering.

The funny-yet-sad feeling of the 30-minute "Did You Move?" also characterizes the mood in the third and most psychologically probing segment, the eponymous, 65-minute "Contact." An award-winning advertising executive in 1990s New York (Daniel McDonald) is suicidal, owing to the absence of meaningful romantic relationships in his life. When he goes to a swing dance club, he sees the alluring if elusive Girl in the Yellow Dress (Deborah Yates) and suddenly finds a reason to live.

Yates, who was in the original production of Contact, has long legs and knows how to sling them around the stage. Her Girl in the Yellow Dress resembles the silent temptress played by Cyd Charisse in a fantasy sequence in the movie Singin' in the Rain.

The interplay between grim reality and fantasy is at the heart of the second and third segments of Contact. You'll have to see the show if you want to find out whether the advertising executive really gets the Girl in the Yellow Dress - and you really should see this show.


Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 tonight, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $22.50-$70

Call: 410-752-1200

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