Williamstown Theatre Festival
Main Stage, August 11-28
Ten Cents a Dance
Music – Richard Rodgers
Lyrics – Lorenz Hart
Johnny – Malcom Gets
Miss Jones 1 – Lauren Molina
Miss Jones 2 – Jane Pfitsch
Miss Jones 3 – Jessica Tyler Wright
Miss Jones 4 – Diana DiMarzio
Miss Jones 5 – Donna McKechnie
Scenic Design – Scott Pask
Costume Design – Ann Hould-Ward
Musical Director/ Orchestrator – Mary-Mitchell Campbell
The stage is stark and cold—dark but visible. Chairs and dozens of musical instruments sit against a circular back wall. At the right, a piano. At the left, a steep, winding staircase with a black, leafy, wrought-iron banister. It twists its way up at least two stories above the stage finally disappearing into the ceiling and a shaft of simulated daylight. We are intrigued, and Ten Cents a Dance, the third and final production on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, has yet to begin.
We know what the instruments are for. Ten Cents a Dance is a John Doyle-conceived and directed musical. As in his revivals of Company and Sweeney Todd, both of which won him a Tony, his singer-musicians accompany themselves.
As the show begins, a man in a three-piece suit appears at the top of the stairs and slowly, carefully (we are relieved at his care) winds his way down the steep stairs and hesitantly moves toward the piano. Only when he opens the keyboard cover and begins to play do the stage lights come up. Suddenly five women ranging from oldest to youngest slowly descend the stairs in a line. They are in long dresses of the same purple and white floral print but in different styles. They don similar red wigs. Each woman has a distinct personality. The oldest, Miss Jones 5, (Donna McKechnie, the original Cassie in A Chorus Line) is wistful. The youngest, Miss Jones 1 (Lauren Molina) is eager and flirtatious. We suspect that they are the same woman at different stages of her life, and she has long been involved in an exasperating relationship with the man, Johnny, (Malcolm Gets).
For the next eighty minutes we are underground in a 1920s or 30s nightclub and up in Rodgers and Hart heaven as these six performers sing and play thirty-one glorious songs. Even the spoken words—and there are very few of them—are lyrics.
Ten Cents a Dance has characters but no real plot. It is more substantive and involving than a revue. It is, in essence, an abstract musical, reminding one of a Balanchine ballet in which dancers connect, have a relationship and separate. As in any Balanchine ballet, everything is driven by the music.
The show is a medley of songs divided into five “episodes” beginning when Johnny (of “Poor Johnny One Note”) and Miss Jones meet. Then they fall in love, enjoy Manhattan, dance and finally, regretfully, separate. Always the five women are involved more with Johnny than with each other. The older women remember themselves as younger, but the younger cannot be aware of their older selves. The show both begins and ends with the melancholy song “Blue Moon.”
You saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own.
With music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Lorenz Hart, the show is always charming, never boring. However, it isn’t totally absorbing either, and that is due primarily to its unique form of singers accompanying themselves on instruments, ranging from the cello to the saxophone to a triangle.
In a show so totally driven by its score, one must ask if the form serves the score: Does it enhance the music and lyrics? Does it make the classic songs feel new? Unfortunately, in many of the songs, the instruments prove distracting.
“It’s not a gimmick or a concept—it’s an alternative approach,” the Scottish theatre and opera director, John Doyle, told British publication The Guardian in 2008. “And of course it wouldn’t work for everything. But there are shows when using actor-musicians allows you to tell stories in a different way. You can have a man sitting, playing a piano, looking back over his life and conjuring the people from his past. It’s a much stronger image.” (Ten Cents a Dance was originally conceived for the small Watermill Theatre in England in 2002. It has been extensively revised this go-round.)
Perhaps it shouldn’t be startling to hear singers accompany themselves on the violin. Singers accompany themselves on the piano and the guitar, so why not a violin? Yet it takes some getting used-to. The cello-accompanied songs works best, perhaps because of Lauren Molina’s accomplished playing and the emotional way her body moves as she draws the bow across the cello strings. Malcom Gets, the son of two pianists, is gifted on his instrument. Jessica Tyler Wright, Jane Pfitsch and Diana DiMarzio are lovely singers and fine actors, although their characters are less intrusive. Their musical ability is not quite good enough. (One must give them credit for being brave enough to play just thirty miles north of Tanglewood.)
Sometimes, as in “At The Roxy Music Hall” (a song about Radio City Music Hall when it first opened) during which two of the women played saxophones, the playing bordered on silly. To see the elegant Donna McKechnie prancing around the stage whacking a triangle was downright embarrassing.
Having actors play their own instruments does bring the audience emotionally closer to the songs and characters. The show has an intimacy that penetrates. In memory, the beauty of the most successful songs—“My Funny Valentine” sung by Jessica Tyler Wright, the ensemble performances of “Falling in Love with Love” and “Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered”—remain, and the weakness of some of the playing retreats.
Ten Cents a Dance heads next to the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. In a post-performance discussion Lauren Molina expressed hope for a Broadway run. The show could work in a small Broadway theatre or off-Broadway.
Ten Cents a Dance isn’t a knock-your-socks off show. Rather than reaching out across the footlights, it pulls its audience in. And for the most part the performance is emotionally memorable and charismatic. It haunts.
© 2011, Nancy Salz