SHOW DOWN Parker's spoof of Broadway attitudes was a campy postmodern parody that combined nostalgia and irreverence.
The Bang Group's performance at Concord Academy Thursday night wrapped the audience in rings of intimacy and surprise. Choreographer/director David Parker, acting as MC, paid loving tribute to Summer Stages Dance, where he and the company have appeared and taught for 10 years. They'd arranged the evening as a mini-retrospective, with a revival of the 1991 duet that gave the Bang Group its name, and the return of Show Down, which was presented last summer, cabaret-style, at Harvard Square's Rialto restaurant. There were tiny segments that showed off local dancer/choreographer Lorraine Chapman, who's been a Bang guest artist, and Summer Stages alumni Zack Winokur and Marissa Palley, now members of the company.
Besides those pleasures, we got to see a home movie the dancers made as a tribute to Parker on his 50th birthday, with Amber Sloan, Nic Petry, and Jeffrey Kazin talking about his influence on their dancing and their lives, and many clips of his inimitable, elegant dancing. And after the evening had scaled the heights of exuberance with Show Down, Parker and Kazin offered an adorable "bonus track" to celebrate the wedding anniversary of Parker's parents, who've been generous supporters of Summer Stages. This song-and-dance routine reconfigured Irving Berlin's "Old Fashioned Wedding" for the era of gender liberation in Massachusetts.
But it wasn't just family feelings that made the evening special. Show Down, an all-dance synthesis of the 1946 Irving Berlin musical Annie Get Your Gun, was a campy postmodern parody that combined nostalgia and irreverence. With his dead-on musical good taste, Parker spared us the parade-ground vocals of Annie's original star, Ethel Merman, except for an obligatory rendering of "There's No Business like Show Business." Instead, he found that almost the entire score had been recorded by Judy Garland, before she was fired from the 1950 Hollywood production, and Howard Keel, who continued as the romantic lead when Betty Hutton replaced Garland in the movie.
Garland is no goofy Hutton, but she delivers Berlin's great ballads and grumps ("They Say That Falling in Love Is Wonderful," "You Can't Get a Man with a Gun") with good spirit and control. Popular singers now often deprive us of the clarity of lyrics and the simple, heartfelt approach to melody that made the literature of 20th-century American song so memorable. And Garland's voice on these tracks is a far cry from the much better-known, vibrato-heavy, sentimentalized recordings and films she made later in her life.
Show Down first of all is a spoof of Broadway attitudes. The dancers have every audience grabber calibrated perfectly, right down to the jolly choruses and sparkly eyes. As the choreography gets trickier, they keep their smiles despite having to maneuver through intricate formations and lifts, and they slip from confusion to culminating pose, right on the music.
Annie Get Your Gun, like the other smash musicals of the post-war years, is about finding your spouse — the hard way. As the singers lay out the qualifications of "The Girl That I Marry" or scuffle with the one they love who doesn't qualify ("Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better"), the dancers ignore the heterosexual game plan. They work in functional groups more than they do romantic pairs. When they do find partners, not always of the opposite sex, they look dubious about it. Amber Sloan dances a slow, hopeful solo and attracts not one man but four. They've already bonded with one another, though, so they serve her only as a back-up group.