Outside the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., a quote by the 35th President (for whom the arts complex is named ) is etched on the wall of the building: “I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty.” Inside, his prophetic words are being fully realized in a breathtaking new musical, Little Dancer, which officially opened Thursday November 20th and will continue through November 30th.
Director-choreographer Susan Stroman teamed with book writer-lyricist Lynn Ahrens and her musical partner, Stephen Flaherty to create a completely original tale based partly on truth and partly on fiction. Both parts equate to a tender and well told story, rich with humor, pathos , and beauty. Stroman, whose five time Tony Award Broadway credits include The Producers and Contact more recently helmed Broadway’s Big Fish and Bullets Over Broadway, both of which were met with an overall lukewarm response. Ahrens and Flaherty’s musicalized treatment of Rocky also proved to be a tough sell at the box office. Let this production be proof they have their grooves back. C’est si bon!
Set in the 19th century world of the Paris Opera Ballet, Little Dancer reveals the previously unknown history of young Marie van Goethem (Tiler Peck), the fourteen year old girl who posed for French artist Edgar Degas (Boyd Gaines). Told in flashback, the story is narrated by the adult version of van Goethem (Rebecca Luker). Young Marie, born into poverty, struggled and scraped to earn her status within her fellow company of dancers (otherwise known as “rats”). In order to continue dancing, she swipes a pocket watch from Degas to buy new ballet shoes. Soon, she is caught, and must repay the debt by becoming his muse. Degas, nearing the end of his artistic career, is losing his eyesight and questioning his last contribution to society. Gaines breathes complete human life into this complex man, who is frustrated, angry, but desperate for the connection and friendship he finds through van Goethem. Peck, a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, moves effortlessly with stunning poise and elegance. Stroman, during a talk with the creative team at New York’s Guggenheim museum commented that they were lucky to have Gaines because he is “one of our great actors in the theater, and Peck is one of the greatest dancers in America.” Perhaps the director is partial, but one only need to watch these two gifted individuals share their craft to know that she spoke the truth. As the older van Goethem, the creative team can also feel fortunate with Luker, who looks upon her younger self with an air of practicality, but also with regret for her life choices. Luker, whose heavenly soprano voice has drifted through numerous Broadway houses, brings poignancy and cohesion to the story.
As Young Marie continues to save and stash her money, her efforts are thwarted by a well-intended, yet alcoholic mother, Martine, (Karen Ziemba) who sqaunders the savings on booze. Ziemba breaks hearts as a laundress filled with emptiness and regret. As the mother of three girls, she laments with her fellow workers the fact that her existence “all boils down to laundry.” Ziemba, it should be noted, is every bit as accomplished as her fellow leading players (She won a “Best Featured Actress” Tony award for her Stroman-directed performance in Contact)
A strong ensemble pairs well with the major characters. The lush and sweeping opening by the cast (“C’est le Ballet”) lays firm groundwork for what will follow. A minor subplot of love between a violinist, Christian (Kyle Harris), seems a bit extraneous. He sings a cute number about the foibles of love (“Musicians and Dancers and Fools”), but appears so infrequently that one finds it challenging to take interest in the relationship.
At its’ core, Little Dancer recalls the same emotional sentiments of A Chorus Line– those of hope, striving, creation, gain and loss. As Thanksgiving approaches, we can be grateful for an original show like this. There is industry buzz that it will transfer to Broadway- how even more thankful we should be. Because a show that depicts genuinely talented artists who once were, are now, would be, should have been, or never were is something that anyone with a spirited beating heart will appreciate.
Little Dancer, now through Nov. 30th at the Eisenhower Theater in The Kennedy Center (2700 F St NW, Washington, DC 20566.) For tickets and information visit http://www.kennedy-center.org/