BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
SARASOTA — Contact hasn't aged well. When director and choreographer Susan Stroman's "dance play'' premiered a decade ago, it was the toast of New York, winning the Tony Award for best musical and running for years. But now in a production by the Asolo Repertory Theatre, it's hard to see what all the excitement was about.
Oh, sure, Contact has a cast of great-looking dancers, so there's the sex appeal factor, and that's not to be underestimated. Stroman's flashy ballet is dance for people who don't really like dance that much. The three numbers in the show reminded me of the sort of routines you'd see on TV variety shows in the '60s, with a little ballet here, some modern movement there, all mixed in with lots of Broadway hoofing.
Contact isn't performed very often, because it requires a cast of top-flight dancers, and the Asolo production is being done in collaboration with Sarasota Ballet. Seven of the 16 cast members are from the ballet company. It was directed by Tome Cousin, who was in the Broadway cast of the show and has been deputized by Stroman to re-create it, down to the original costume design of William Ivey Long.
The show takes a while to get rolling, as it opens with Swinging, a pointless vignette keyed to an 18th century painting onstage, with a foppish aristocrat (Matt Baker) and his servant (Sean Ewing) competing for the attention of a coquette on a swing (Ariel Shepley), to Stephane Grappelli playing a fiddle arrangement of My Heart Stood Still. Sexual acrobatics on the swing ensue in witless fashion verging on the vulgar.
The second number, Did You Move?, is built around the hackneyed theme that dancing is the outward physical expression of an inner fantasy life. It chronicles a night at an Italian restaurant with a thug (James Clarke) and his put-upon wife (Nadine Isenegger). Every time he gets up to go to the buffet, she bursts into a pas de deux with the head waiter (Octavio Martin) or other romantic dance. Isenegger is more Broadway than ballet and her performance is mainly played for laughs.
Only in the third and longest number, Contact, do things pick up. And for good reason, since its story was Stroman's inspiration when she became fascinated by the sight of a mystery woman in a yellow dress dancing in a New York club. Shannon Lewis plays the Girl in a Yellow Dress, an unattainable beauty who changes the life of a drunken, suicidal advertising man, played by Fletcher McTaggart. These two pretty much save the show.
Swing dancing was big when Stroman dreamed up Contact, and her choreography takes on some welcome energy with music by the Royal Crown Revue and Squirrel Nut Zippers. Benny Goodman's Sing, Sing, Sing is like a swing version of Swan Lake in the show's most elaborate dance sequence.
In some ways, Contact's appeal stems from its resemblance to a music video. Simply Irresistible by the late, great Robert Palmer, an iconic hit on MTV, supplies the music for a knockout number in the show. McTaggart, in a disheveled three-piece suit, does a passable take on Palmer, and Lewis has the enigmatic allure of one of the rocker's mannequin dancers. Stroman's choreography is at its best, lyrical and funny and sexy.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.