NEW YORK — The fall season of new musicals on Broadway has two hits - "Contact," subtitled "a dance play," and a delicious revival of "Kiss Me, Kate." A third less-fortunate musical idea - a retread of the film "Saturday Night Fever" - has landed with an expensive thud.
Susan Stroman is the creative wizard behind Contact, an evening that evokes the great dances of the past century with ballet, jazz, and images of Fred-and- Ginger rolled into one.
"Contact" is similar to a night at the ballet in its structure, featuring a trio of unrelated dance-ettes performed by a cast of stellar dancer-actors. Each short story takes movement as its medium of communication to tell a tale, although some dialogue is included.
The opener, "Swinging," is a sensual, elegant gag set in the 18th century about two men and a woman taking turns on a swing. It's followed by "Did You Move?" a fantasy play about a macho husband and his unhappy wife at dinner in an Italian restaurant in the '50s. The evening ends in the superlative hour-long work "Contact."
It's this post-intermission portion that shoots the show into the stratosphere. Theatergoers may never look at a yellow dress in quite the same way after they've seen what Stroman and Deborah Yates, who wears the frock, make of it. "Contact" is the story of a burned-out advertising executive, played with winning desperation by Boyd Gaines. He meets the yellow-clad woman in a singles club where the entertainment of choice is swing dancing, but he can't dance. Gaines is brought back to life by his encounters with this vision of a girl, who rules the dance floor and the men on it, with the poise and moxie of a sophisticated prom queen.
Gaines wins Yates in a dream sequence that's backed by some of the best dancers now working in New York. Choreographer Stroman knows how to bring out the personalities of each performer, layering human complexities within the fabulous swing combinations set to a series of pop songs on tape.
If "Contact" suggests a new musical form in the making, Kiss Me, Kate is a glorious throwback to the golden age of musical theater, when Cole Porter was one of the many talented composers and lyricists at work.
"Kiss Me, Kate" is a cross between a love letter to show-biz folks and a witty examination of love and marriage. Under the direction of Michael Blakemore, who paces the production at a dead run, and with choreography by Kathleen Marshall, the singing actors fling themselves into the story and songs as if they've been invited to the party of the century and are taking the audience along for the fun.
The musical opened in 1948 to raves from the critics, and ran for more than 1,000 performances. Porter's score included hit after hit: "Another Op'nin', Another Show," "Wunderbar," "So In Love," "Too Darn Hot," and "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," among them.
Porter's clever internal rhymes, and the book by Samuel and Bella Spewack that links the backstage feuding of an actor and his ex-wife-actress to a production of William Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew," are still richly provocative. These are marvelous roles for Brian Stokes Mitchell as the matinee idol and Marin Mazzie as his high-maintenance costar.
Amy Spanger as a cutie-pie Lois ( and "Bianca" in "Taming of the Shrew") is the next big name to watch for on Broadway marquees. She's partnered by exemplary dancer Michael Berresse as her beau.
"Saturday Night Fever," the film, was blessed with the white-hot performance of John Travolta as Tony, the Brooklyn kid who lives for his once-a-week turn on the dance floor of the local disco, where he rules as king, making his dead-end job bearable. The dances and the unforgettable songs by The Bee Gees formed the background to the movie, becoming visual metaphors of his hopes and dreams. By contrast, Saturday Night Fever - The Musical attempts to clone the film while setting the songs and dances center stage, stuffing the story in around them.
The chief mistake by director Arlene Phillips is in the paint-by-numbers imitation of the film, minus an actor of Travolta's appeal. The dance sequences make the sexy disco moves seem repetitive, while the actors find only clichs in the blue-collar workers they portray.
The attractive young performer (James Carpinello) who portrays Tony is simply overwhelmed by the role, while Paige Price as his girlfriend is out of sync with him. Orfeh (a one-name actress) belts out "If I Can't Have You" in obligatory form, but the rest of the cast is wasted, except for Bryan Batt as the tawdry but lively disc jockey. Scenic designer Robin Wagner re-creates the huge Verrazano Bridge with lanes of cars zooming across it in the distance. The other most anticipated musical is Michael LaChiusa's "Marie Christine," starring Audra McDonald which opened last night at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre. Stephen Sondheim's "Wise Guys" has been postponed for more revisions after its fall workshop performances in New York.
'Contact' ends its sold-out run at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater Jan. 2, but moves to the larger Beaumont Theater March 9. 'Kiss Me, Kate' is at the Martin Beck Theatre on 45th Street; and 'Saturday Night Fever' continues at the Minskoff Theater on 45th Street, west of Broadway.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society