North Shore's snazzy revival of contact

Plus, Gurnet’s Essential Self-Defense
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  June 17, 2008

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CONTACT: Naomi Hubert in the clingy yellow dress is simply irresistible.

For a Broadway show, contact is closer to Twyla Tharp than George M. Cohan. Tharp hit the street in 2002 with her own “dance play,” Movin’ Out, which was set to Billy Joel songs pounded out by an on-stage piano man. But Susan Stroman’s 1999 contact, seen here in a snazzy revival by North Shore Music Theatre (through June 29), was first. The show — really three vignettes linked by a themes of loneliness, liberation, and play — won the 2000 Tony Award for Best Musical. Some were outraged, since nobody sings and the music, which ranges from Tchaikovsky to the Beach Boys, is pre-recorded. But whether contact is or isn’t a musical, it is an original entertainment, and for all its synchronistic slickness, it’s far from heartless. And at North Shore Music Theatre, where Stroman’s direction and choreography have been replicated by original cast member Tomé Cousin, the balance between showmanship and human need is maintained. Some adjustments have been made to accommodate NSMT’s theater in the round, but by and large, this is the contact Stroman made.

Commissioned to create an original work for Lincoln Center, Stroman and minimal-book writer John Weidman began with the title tale. They were inspired by Stroman’s late-night meander into a meat-packing-district pool hall doing after-hours duty as a swing-dance venue, and by the Ambrose Bierce story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” where a man in a noose escapes into dream. And “contact,” which comprises the entire second act, is the main event. The shorter first-act vignettes were invented to further the themes of “swinging” and the freeing power of dance.

The curtain raiser, “Swinging,” is a brief dance sketch with a Pinteresque twist, inspired by the 1768 Fragonard painting Les hasards heureux de l’escarpolette and set to Stéphane Grappelli’s jazz rendering of Rodgers & Hart’s “My Heart Stood Still.” In a sylvan glen, a servant pushes a peach-clad lass on a swing as her aristocratic admirer reclines on the ground taking peeks up her dress. Flirtation ensues, but when the boyfriend goes off to fetch more wine, the swing becomes a trapeze for a high-flying copulative encounter between lady and valet. It’s a buoyant, gymnastic affair performed with soaring, ducking precision by Sean Ewing and Ariel Shepley before Jake Pfarr returns to add an unexpected flourish to the fantasy.

“Did You Move?” hurtles forward to an Italian restaurant in Queens circa 1954, where a bit of statuary from the first piece becomes part of the décor. Enter a Sopranos-esque couple out to enjoy buffet night, she a nervous talker swathed in gray-blue organza, he a grim controller sporting a glower. “Don’t talk, don’t smile, don’t frickin’ move,” the husband (a brute Steve Luker) instructs his cowed wife before trudging off in search of manicotti. Whereupon she leans her head back, gracefully relaxes her shoulders, and takes off on the first of several madcap balletic escapes set to Grieg, Tchaikovsky, and Bizet, the headwaiter (a fleet, insouciant Matt Rivera) hurling his tray aside to partner her in fiercely whimsical pas de deux complete with lifts, jétés, and climbing up one’s fellow diners. But for all the nimbly danced craziness, you don’t forget that at the center of the piece is an abused woman whose emancipation is temporary and imagined. And if Sally Mae Dunn is not Broadway’s Karen Ziemba, whose trembling arms evoked a pathos that was chilling, she’s a lithe dancer who brings both piquancy and a comedienne’s chops to the part.

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