WASHINGTON, November 23, 2014 – Members of the media finally got their chance to see the Kennedy Center’s new musical, “Little Dancer,” this Thursday past.
Set to close this coming weekend, this production actually opened to the public on October 25 at the KenCen’s Eisenhower Theater. But given that this world premiere Kennedy Center commission aspires to eventual success on Broadway, it’s understandable that everyone involved would want to get the kinks out before opening the doors to the press.
Happily, while “Little Dancer” does have its minor weaknesses, these are vastly outweighed by the show’s uniquely distinctive charms.
Not the least of these are Beowulf Boritt’s beautiful, evocative sets, aided and abetted by some of the most beautiful and artful projected backdrops ever, courtesy of Benjamin Pearcy; and beautiful period-perfect costuming by William Ivey Long, whose colorful ballet costumes are particularly striking. The show’s settings and costuming are further complemented by Ken Billington’s subtly imaginative lighting and the light-as-air sound wizardry of Kai Harada.
Background and story
With book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music and vocals by Stephen Flaherty−the team that created “Ragtime”−“Little Dancer” is an extended, imaginative riff on the conjectural career of a young, teenaged real-life dancer named Marie von Goethem, a decidedly lower-class waif who, by pluck, luck and sheer talent landed a low-level job dancing for the Paris Opera Ballet corps near the end of the 19th century.
Marie actually did achieve a measure of immortality due to serving as the model for Edgar Degas’ once shocking but now revered sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.” An atypical, mixed-media work whose original was sculpted primarily in wax, Degas’ bold and almost deterministic entry into the outer reaches of modernism scandalized both the public and the critics when it was first unveiled at the 1881 Impressionist Exhibition in Paris.
Viewers were shocked by what they considered to be the sculpture’s primitive brutalism which bordered, for some, on artistic depravity. Yet today, as is so often the case in such matters, Degas’ “Little Dancer” is regarded as an early modernist classic. (Helpfully, the National Gallery of Art has the sculpture on exhibit here through January 11, so you can judge for yourself. See our note below.)
Details on Marie’s actual life are scarce. But the few facts we have center more on the events surrounding her involvement with Degas’ famous sculpture rather than her dance career.
In this century, at least two writers have penned fictionalized versions of Marie’s story. For “Little Dancer” The Show, Lynn Ahrens has done a superb job fashioning a realistic story arc for its elusive heroine. Ms. Ahrens’ book folds known facts and likely possibilities into a rags-to-almost-riches tale that wraps story, art, dance and social criticism into a grim fairy tale that still concludes with a ray of hope.
From the outset, “Little Dancer” is no ordinary Broadway-style show. The music and the vocals are there. But both take a back seat to the dancing in this show. It’s a bold, unusual move. Yet it’s thematically right, resulting in a unique show where much of the story is told by the dance.
Also non-traditional: the underlying current of darkness that shadows “Little Dancer.” The show explores in some detail the seamier side of French musical theater and its associated glitterati in class-conscious 19th century Paree.
In “Little Dancer’s” Paris Opera Ballet corps, young apprentice ballerinas, while occasionally hailing from upper-class families, are frequently girls from the wrong side of the tracks (or the Seine). Cynically referred to as “rats” by their social betters, they pursue their impossible dream via rigorous training funded by donations from wealthy and generally male ballet and opera patrons.
There’s no free lunch, of course. Many of these upstanding “gentlemen” desire a return on their investment, expecting their favorite “rats” to show them special favor backstage during the opera’s intervals. It’s like a crude revival of the ancient, droit du signer, discreetly updated for the Victorian era.
Ratline aside, the focal point of the show is Marie’s pivotal encounter with the famous but aging artist Edgar Degas. The relationship they develop is intense but chaste, with Degas more concerned about his artistic vision and failing eyesight than is on seducing his favorite ballerina/model.
Degas often comes across as more of a father figure than Marie’s own father—a man she doesn’t even know. He abandoned his family responsibilities long ago, leaving his wife−who seems to have been a rat herself at one point−to support three daughters. This she grudgingly does, earning a few francs here and there doing people’s laundry and occasionally a few more by turning tricks on the side.
It’s this cycle of despair, this Dreiserian naturalism, that haunts “Little Dancer’s” throughout. Its only antidote is Marie’s boundless optimism and indomitable spirit.
Lyrics and music
Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics are witty, imaginative, metrical, yet economical, reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim at his best. Often impressively poetic, her lyrics serve multiple functions almost effortlessly, providing insight into the characters and their times.
Stephen Flaherty’s music is an excellent match. Like Ms. Ahrens’ book and lyrics, it’s another big plus in this production.
Mr. Flaherty works with a broad pallette. Character motifs and operatic undercurrents ripple through his score, influenced, perhaps in equal measure, by 19th century operas written in the “verismo” or “sung drama” style and the more contemporary work of Stephen Sondheim whose shows approach the music in a similar vein.
However, most contemporary musical theater audiences hope for at least one or two great tunes in a new show that they can take home and sing in the shower. Sondheim generally provides the goods. With one or two possible exceptions, “Little Dancer” lacks this feature.
From a personal standpoint, we enjoyed Mr. Flaherty’s score, finding it to be uncannily organic, almost a period authentic match with every aspect of the show. But we worry about the unknown: can a new musical prosper in 2014 without at least one big hit tune? We’ll eventually learn the answer.
One unique aspect of this show is the supreme importance of its choreography. One normally expects a few nifty dance numbers in any musical. But in this case, we’re dealing with a show that’s all about the dance and what it takes to become a performing artist.
Fortunately, the collaborators seem to have possessed a keen sense of artistic balance when putting this show together. This certainly helped director and choreographer Susan Stroman create imaginative dance sequences that advance the story line, illuminate the personalities, but also stand on their own as expressive vignettes.
Of particular note is the extended ballet sequence near the end of the second act. It very much reminded us of the elaborate ballet-pantomime dream sequence in “Oklahoma!” which spectacularly encapsulated that show’s emotional trajectory.
Likewise in “Little Dancer,” both Mr. Flaherty’s music and Ms. Stroman’s elegant choreography highlight Marie’s emotional chaos in their big ballet, in which images of the past collide with a complex present en route to encountering an unknown future.
Even the best new show will ultimately rise or fall on the shoulders of the singers, actors and dancers who bring it to life. Happily, “Little Dancer” is blessed with a talented cast that believes in this show and makes the magic happen.
“Little Dancer’s” success greatly depends on the talent and likability of its central character, “Young Marie,” played in this production by the astonishing Tiler Peck. Already a principal dancer in the New York City Ballet, Ms. Peck, only 25, can most certainly dance. But she can also sing, carrying her vocals aloft with a light, silvery soprano. And mirabile dictu, she’s a warm and winning actress as well.
Ms. Peck lights up this production from the very start in “Little Dancer’s” opening number, “C’est le ballet.” Thereafter, whether on her own or in ensemble, she’s the belle of the ball, particularly in her sensitive and at times heartbreaking performance in this show’s coda-like second act ballet.
Ms. Peck’s luminous portrayal of Young Marie inspires the entire cast, particularly her fellow principals. Chief among them is three-time Tony winner Rebecca Luker who plays “Adult Marie.”
“Little Dancer” is a tale told in flashback, and Adult Marie serves as the story’s narrator and virtual Greek Chorus as she relates her strange story to the now late Edgar Degas’ skeptical longtime friend and colleague, American painter Mary Cassatt (tartly portrayed by Janet Dickinson). Whether by spoken dialogue of with her well-supported soprano voice, Ms. Luker’s older, wiser Adult Marie brings balance to the volatile and impetuous personality of her younger self, reconciling her present with her past.
Another Tony Award winner, Boyd Gaines, rounds out the trio of “Little Dancer’s” principal characters. As Edgar Degas, the cantankerous yet unwitting deus ex machina of this production, Mr. Gaines gradually reveals his character’s complex and arguably more sympathetic inner self, serving as this show’s often troubled yet always forthright artistic conscience, traits embedded in his controversial sculpture.
In addition to “Little Dancer’s” three principals, several additional cast members contribute significantly to the effort.
As Marie’s less-than-perfect mother, Karen Ziemba is well cast as a frantic bundle of nerves and personal trauma. A magnificent ruin, she’s a battle-hardened harridan who may have a heart of gold. But she still prefers to drown her sorrows in the bottle while occasionally taking life’s setbacks out on Marie.
Marie’s younger sister Charlotte, attractively portrayed by Sophia Anne Caruso, also aspires to the ballet, but seems to be better-balanced than her sister. Ms. Caruso is most affection in her Act I duet with Ms. Peck, “A Little Hole in the Wall,” in which both sisters celebrate their secret hiding place for what little fortune they’ve been able to accumulate.
Jenny Powers turned in a wonderful, bigger-than-life performance as oldest sister Antoinette, another former ballet rat turned courtesan. We meet her for the first time as the fabulously pampered mistress of one of the Paris Opera’s treasured patrons, played with sleazy zest by Sean Martin Hingston. But like nearly everyone else in this story, Ms. Powers’ Antoinette learns that the generosity of others can be taken away in a heartbeat.
Lest we forget—as Marie’s greatest and most devoted admirer, the young violinist Christian, Kyle Harris gives a winning performance. He inhabits the hapless role of the decent guy who’s truly the right one for Marie. This, of course, guarantees his strenuous attempts to win her heart will utterly fail, but we admire his foolish optimism just the same.
Mr. Harris’s too-nice suitor may lose the girl. But he does get to sing “Musicians and Dancers and Fools.” It’s possibly this show’s most memorable tune, and Mr. Harris he puts across with his boyish yet highly expressive tenor.
We should give one final hat tip to the good work of the nifty but slightly undersized pit orchestra supplied by the KenCen and ably directed by this production’s music director and conductor Shawn Gough. The instrumental ensemble blended perfectly with the singers adding another welcome touch to an already fine production.
There are, alas, only a few days left to catch this artful, magical musical at the Kennedy Center unless it somehow manages to get extended to Christmas. But if you do get an opportunity to attend “Little Dancer” this holiday week, by all means give the show a try.
We wish the entire “Little Dancer” team well as they set their sights on the Big Apple. We think they’ve already won a lot of friends here in DC.
Rating: *** ½ (3.5 out of 4 stars)
The Kennedy Center’s premiere performances of “Little Dancer” continue at the Eisenhower Theater through November 30. The show runs approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes including one intermission.
Tickets and Information: Tickets run from $45-155, although we note that prices are subject to change. For tickets and information on the show, call the Box Office at 202-467-4600 or visit the Kennedy Cewww.kennedy-center.org.
Little Dancer, Oct. 25-Nov. 30 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Tickets cost $45-$155, subject to change. Call 202-467-4600 or visit the Kennedy Center website.
National Gallery Exhibit
As noted above, the National Gallery is currently featuring a complimentary exhibit on the work of Degas, centering on “Little Dancer.” The following information is excerpted from the National Gallery website’s description of the exhibit:
Little Dancer Aged Fourteen (1878–1881), Edgar Degas’s groundbreaking statuette of a young ballerina that caused a sensation at the 1881 impressionist exhibition, takes center stage in an exploration of Degas’s fascination with ballet and his experimental, modern approach to his work. This exhibition is presented in conjunction with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ world-premiere musical Little Dancer….
Degas was a keen observer and wry but sympathetic chronicler of the daily life of dancers, depicting their world off-stage, at rehearsal or in the wings. Degas’s Little Dancer showcases this world of gaslight and struggle, as captured by the master.
One of the Gallery’s most popular works of art, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen will be presented with 14 additional works from the Gallery’s collection, including the monumental pastel Ballet Scene (c. 1907), monotypes and smaller original statuettes by Degas that are related to Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. The exhibition also includes the oil painting The Dance Class (c. 1873) from the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
The National Gallery of Art has the largest and most important collection of Degas’s surviving original wax sculptures in the world. Its wax version of Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is the only one formed by the artist’s own hands and the only sculpture he ever showed publicly. Degas did not carve sculpture but used an additive process. Little Dancer Aged Fourteen was modeled in wax over a metal armature, bulked with organic materials including wood, rope, and even old paintbrushes in the arms. Degas elevated the sculpture’s realism by affixing a wig of human hair and giving his ballerina a cotton-and-silk tutu, a cotton faille bodice, and linen slippers.
Organized by the National Gallery, the exhibit continues through January 11, 2015.