While it has a dancical design, In Your Arms is a sparkling dance-musical hybrid, a leaping love story festival in its world premiere at the Old Globe Theatre through Oct. 25.
With no intermission, we are transported to Casa di Giulietta in Verona, where we think Shakespeare penned Romeo and Juliette, to begin a global journey of romantic love and longing led by an exquisite ensemble of 20 equity actor-dancers. As in life, we try to forget the scary and sad times, and remember the laughs.
Comic vignettes are the most dynamic and innovative parts of the production. There are video clips.
Click-clacking sounds of fingers on a keyboard trigger a surreal Parisian hallucination with a twirling pink ballerina, mime, and artist. Eyes turn to the stage edge. “Oh my God, that’s Princess Leia, I mean Fisher,” is the collective audience whisper. Jenn Harris is spot-on as chain-smoking author-actor Carrie Fisher, complete with Princess Leia hair buns and a visit from her psychiatric nurse.
Fisher will soon reprise her role in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Harris as her doppelgänger is this show’s star with force that awakens. We become voyeurs spying on the cultural icon at home in a bathrobe at a desk. She has writers’ block and calls her mom, Debbie Reynolds. She goes bat crazy and throws herself into the Parisian dance action, which is the climax of the show. Harris is also hilarious in the Soviet dance competition.
Even more acrobatic is the office worker with a secret, danced by Erica Wong. The dedicated secretary with Kung Fu superpowers battles evil underworld characters to protect her boss. In David Henry Hwang’s vignette White Snake, martial arts and special effects kick in and weapons fly, with nods to the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Telling love stories through dance is nothing new. Choreographers have always collaborated with playwrights and composers. Arms is different because multiple stories and styles are jammed into an evening. Director-choreographer Christopher Gatelli, a Broadway veteran and Tony Award winner, teams with producer Jennifer Manocherian. They take pride in “mixing genres across eras and cultures from classical ballet to swing to tap to ballroom and flamenco and tango.” Those offerings appeal to a broad audience. Here’s a fancy festival with African rhythms, jitterbug, and ballroom contests. Drag queens make it extra fun.
They invited top writers to share a love story and add Broadway bells and whistles, but the ambitious creation still has historical texture. There’s a sense of quill pens scraping yellowed paper, worn hands clutching a private journal, and tossing love notes into a roaring fire.
It opens with classical ballet in the prologue. A woman in her nightie leans out from a Juliette balcony. Her muscled Romeo dressed in nude colored tights pantomimes heartache and climbs up cascading vines. We’ve seen that R&J image before, but here the score is different. Instead of Prokofiev, viola d’amores, and mandolins, we hear a layered score by Stephen Flaherty, who also crafted the score for Ragtime, and many others. Title song lyrics are by Lynn Ahrens.
Flaherty and Ahrens wrote another dance musical, Little Dancer, about a ballerina and painter sculptor Edgar Degas. They also wrote a musical version of the film Rocky which had boxing choreography.
While his lush score ties In Your Arms stories together and complements bouncy Charleston and wild acrobatic sock-hop sequences, it doesn’t always fit the scene. Make it stop during the Flamenco story.
Nilo Cruz’s tale describes a couple torn apart in fascist Spain, when Dictator Franco banned all things regional, including arts and Flamenco. Dancers perform dignified staccato footwork and exude deep emotion with arms and coiling hands. Instead of an orchestra, the scene screams for a lone guitar and gritty singer to reinforce grim reality.
Costumes by Jess Goldstein and scenic design by Derek McLane help conjure lovers, cheaters, and abusers in glitzy Hollywood, violent third-world borders, and Asia. Dressing rooms must be exploding with quick changes.
The cast includes Broadway favorite Donna McKechnie, known for her lovely voice and A Chorus Line and Company. She sings the title song more than once, injecting heartfelt memories between flashes of humor and horror. Love isn’t always pretty and involves trade-offs. Some viewers may question why the most violent sequences involve brown-skinned characters.
Romantic love and dance clichés pulse throughout this premiere of In Your Arms. Dance aficionados will find it exhilarating and perhaps too Broadway cheesy. There are moments when one wishes for Graham or Pina Bausch abstraction.
Projection designs by Olivia Sebesky add greatly to the theater magic. The same plywood panel transforms from a garden wall to cities and period settings in a blink. For a few minutes we join a lonely man in a projected forest, and we believe he has a love encounter with an extraterrestrial being.