A panacea for the heart

The Warner Theatre has received a pulsing, lusty valentine, courtesy of the peerless Broadway choreographer/director Susan Stroman. “Contact,” her 1999 Tony Award-winning “dance play,” is still the most contemporary landmark work in the American Musical theatre. Even “The Producers,” also directed by Ms. Stroman, doesn’t hit the creative heights on which this show so intrepidly coasts.

The argument when “Contact” first opened was that it wasn’t a real musical. There’s no singing, and the score is recorded (Grieg, Tchaikovsky, the Beach Boys and Robert Palmer are on the soundtrack). But while it may not send audiences out into the streets humming a new show-tune, it does leave its own stamp of giddy memory on everyone in attendance and went on to win every conceivable award for best musical in its year.

For all its airy staging, “Contact” remains seriously hobbled by John Weidman’s aggressively humorless book. With vignettes about spousal abuse, adultery and suicide, it gets more and more difficult to imagine these characters lifting their spirits long enough to get up and dance. As a result, the show receives a surefooted but graceless combination of tones that routinely jar the audience from a deep pocket of gloom to cloud nine.

Act I is based on the painter Fragonard’s “The Swing.” A young girl takes turns curling into countless sexual positions with her two suitors, all while pumping (in more ways than one) on her swing. Act II, titled “Did You Move?” seems to have bipolar tendencies: a husband regularly threatens his wife, who can only retreat to the safety of her imagination for solace. And Act III places an ad executive on his apartment windowsill and hanging from the ceiling with a makeshift noose, before he finds the will to dance, let alone live. “Contact” posits that the two are one and the same. The entrance of a girl swathed in a slinky, canary-yellow number also gives his life (and his hips) some much-needed oomph.

For all the fuss about the Girl in the Yellow Dress (which is justifiable, as she’s portrayed by the luscious, long-stemmed Allie Meixner), it is Act II’s character of the Wife who emerges as “Contact’s” raison d’?tre. For one thing, she has a personality, which is more than can be said about the elegant effigy whose actions suggest a robot programmed to approximate Ginger Rogers.

But Candy Brown, as the Wife in the “Did You Move?” movement, quarried the depths of her character to heart-racing lengths. An actor’s part as much as it is a dancer’s, the Wife requires its performer to portray a Lucille Ball-variety shrinking violet, equal parts brass and na?vete. But it also demands a subtle melancholia. Ms. Brown demonstrated a vulpine exuberance during her day-dreamy solos that quickly evaporated when reality (and her Husband) slapped her (literally) in the face.

The ensemble work during “Did You Move?” is not always clean, nor is it smooth. But then, Ms. Stroman has devised a demi-ballet, one whose purity is both compromised and spiked by a crowded set of tables, chairs and diagonally-cascading stage business. That her dancers found the floor, let alone the footing, was miraculous. This isn’t Balanchine, but it isn’t generic Busby Berklee either.

This has been the argument all along – the discourse is essentially a panel about everything “Contact” is not. It’s not a musical in the traditional sense. It’s neither a play, nor a revue nor unadulterated dance. It’s a little bit of all these. And for all of the controversy surrounding this hybrid entertainment, what one comes away with is that “Contact” represents something undiluted, nevertheless. Ms. Stroman’s opus is a variation on the sing-along for the feet – just look at the audience members seated around you: they can’t help but tap their toes and click their heels with the dancers onstage. And when the lights come up, people refuse to leave the theatre; they move along to the music that plays long after the curtain falls, having connected with this production, with the characters, and for a brief, magical moment, with each other.

“Contact” will be at the Warner Theatre until Sunday. Call (202) 397-SEAT for tickets.

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