The Carpetbaggers

What's wrong with the "Broadway" shows that come to town in search of our fans and our fortunes?

The Broadway production of Contact opened with a scene designed to dazzle. Based on a painting by 18th-century artist Jean Honoré Fragonard, the interlude showed a couple in an amorous embrace upon an oversize swing. As their romantic behavior became bawdier, their swinging climbed higher, until it seemed like some sort of erotic trapeze act.

The touring production, now at the Ordway Theater, is smaller in ambition. The couple is still onstage, still locked in a passionate clinch. But the swing is smaller, moves with less vigor, and achieves nowhere near the dizzying heights of its Broadway counterpart.

Broadway stripped of dazzle simply isn't Broadway, whether we've replaced a marquee star with a lesser light, as is often the case in touring productions, or replaced circus-like choreography with something less vaulting. That's just one of the reasons I typically skip the visits of these out-of-town guests. Though they're frequently held up to demonstrate the vitality of downtown arts culture, what they typically demonstrate instead is the marketing power of Broadway mythology.

These pecs take no prisoners: 'Contact'
Ordway Center for the Performing Arts
These pecs take no prisoners: 'Contact'

One would think that Contact, of any Broadway play, would thrive on a smaller stage. After all, it originated on the cramped Mitzi Newhouse stage at the Lincoln Center before jumping to the larger Vivian Beaumont space. And Contact is not an overly elaborate show. In fact, despite being billed as a musical, it is very much an extended display of choreography. The show's music is entirely prerecorded, and at no point do the characters onstage sing. Yet something is decidedly missing in this touring show, and its weaknesses represent those of its ilk.

Aside from the swinging lovers, the show offers two additional unrelated vignettes, connected by the somewhat nebulous theme of the human need for romantic connection. The stories are slight and simple, offering unexpected twists of fate, as though the production were telling jokes. Yet the punch lines here seem to be going for poignancy rather than humor (though you might not guess it, given some of the strangely timed laughter of the Ordway audience). That tone is not a bad choice: Schmaltz plays surprisingly well on the stage, and touching comical vignettes have long been a Broadway staple.

Schmaltz informs the mood of Contact, and that may be why much of the charm of the Broadway original remains intact here. As an example, there's a long middle section in which a browbeaten housewife imagines herself the main character in a ballet that has her shoot her abusive husband. The whole of it is choreographed and performed for maximum whimsy. The housewife (played by a sweet-visaged dancer named Meg Howrey) throws napkins over the faces of her fellow diners in a Queens Italian restaurant, seizes the maître d' and frolics with him, and rides around on the shoulders of waiters, unnoticed by them. It's a lovely fantasy, and, as it requires nothing more spectacular than several canned songs by Grieg and Bizet, a good pair of dance shoes, and an endearing smile, it works quite well at the Ordway.

Yet other aspects of this offering seem to have gone bad in transit, which leads me to my broader rant about why local audiences are done wrong by trucked-in "Broadway." Although such productions generally roll into town touting their awards, what we see is not the award-winning show. A touring production must be so completely reconceived for the road that it might as well be treated as a new production altogether--and why not? It usually has an entirely new cast, acting out new staging on an entirely new set. Often the directorial tasks have been handed off to an uncredited assistant director. This is where it gets tricky, because so many Broadway shows rely on an arsenal of special effects that cannot be transported, and when you eliminate the razzle-dazzle, precious little remains: a flimsy series of sets and bombastic songs in Titanic; shopworn ABBA pop songs offered without benefit of solid storytelling in Mamma Mia! Though the Ordway's original musical productions have been hit-or-miss affairs these past few years, their real commercial deficit has been the hype and publicity that comes from a successful New York run. That this hype has little to do with the show that turns up here goes largely unstated.

So it is that Contact's lack of spectacle makes the musical's weaknesses evident. The much-lauded choreography by director Susan Stroman seems simplistic and inelegant, particularly in a long swing-dance sequence at the end of the play. Six years after Swingers, this trend seems as frozen as those dancers in the famous Gap ad. As long as we're seeing a new show, why not try out new material, far from the withering pens of the New York press? Worse yet, the scene relies on the most basic--and least interesting--of jitterbug dance steps. Absent are the high-flying, toss-your-partner-in-the-air moves that virtually define the form. Here we have another kind of swinging couple, wanting to break free from gravity and soar upward toward the rafters, but remaining stubbornly earthbound instead.

 
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