Forty years ago in A Chorus Line, Donna McKechnie stopped the American musical theatre in its tracks and turned it in a new direction, whence it’s hurtling still.
In Chorus Line, Michael Bennett pushed aside the stars and brought to center stage the splendid core of the art form: The dancer-singer-actor performers who could sparkle alone or blend into any required whole, on command. The theatre caught his point and the art has surged into new realms ever since.
McKechnie was listed with the others, in alphabetical order, but everybody knew she was a star. Zach, the thinly veiled avatar of Bennett himself, deciding who to hire for his next show, acknowledged her star quality and tried to kick her out of the auditions, because. “You don’t dance like anybody else. You don’t know how.” But Cassie (Donna’s character) needs and pleads for a shot. This was what she does for a living. And she was so much the star that she also was able to play the chorus, a revelation to those paying attention, even through all the universal acclaim for her performance.
Now, four decades later, reduced only by time, Donna teaches and mentors. But the poise and the presence are still there. And that, along with her theatrical immortality, is what got her hired for In Your Arms, a music/dance trifle now premiering at the Old Globe Theatre.
It’s a buffet of scenes on the general concept of lovers’ contact, commissioned from an impressive list of authors and performed by a handsome and energetic troupe of 22, directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli with music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens.
There’s a balletic prologue for (who else?) Romeo and Juliet, danced with pride and precision by Spencer Clark and Lyrica Woodruff, then Donna enters in a spotlight. As the young couples wheel and swoop behind her, she sings the title song, a vague scoop of sentimentality that offers perils for anyone with less than precise pitch.
After she wistfuls off the stage, there begins the menu: A flamenco number. An African number. A drag number. And some selections worth more notice.
A popular favorite was a loud and garish Soviet dance competition, circa 1968, invaded abruptly by a muscular and competitive American duo. The reigning Russian diva is at first annoyed and then gobsmacked by the handsome Yankee. High-energy hilarity ensues, built largely around the brilliant comic talents of Jenn Harris as the local champ.
Christopher Durang gets credit for this vignette, though there’s little in the way of dialogue. The author can, however, claim the evening’s prize for lyric writing: He rhymes, in one ditty, “boing,” “going” and “song.” (”Soing,” specifically, but still…)
Actually, there’s not much play-writing in evidence throughout. Scenarios and extended anecdotage perhaps. But mostly just plot framework for the dancing.
An exception is Carrie Fisher’s presumably autobiographical “Lowdown Messy Shame,” with Harris again, this time playing Fisher (Star Wars hairdo and all) as a blocked author, downstage right, trying ideas on her laptop. (“Metal bikini?” “In the popemobile?”)
What gradually takes shape is a dreamy Parisian scene – balloons, a mime, artist and model, strutting dandy – with a pretty ballet girl following the author’s instructions. The phone rings, Carrie says “Hi, Mom” and during the break, the scene takes itself over, with the ballet girl falling for the little tramp. When Carrie returns, she’s appalled and the struggle for control turns nasty until… well, a deus ex machina intervenes.
This one, like “The Dance Contest,” gets some of Gattelli’s most rousing choreography. Jess LeProtto tap-dances merrily and few obvious turns remain unshown.
For tight tale-telling and all-out joy, there’s Alfred (Driving Miss Daisy) Uhry’s “Love With the Top Down,” in which Hayley Podschun and Brendon Stimson are high school lovers ogling the starry night and each other until the radio heats up and they jitterbug to bliss. (She’s the one who has to open the condom pack.)
Or how about David Henry Hwang’s chop-saki fantasy of cell-phone bleeps, low dives, menacing ninjas, mind drugs, special effects and odds surmounted, “White Snake,” which begins and ends in an office cubicle? Alex Michael Stoll and Erica Wong do it all.
A lot of music, huh? You bet, and across many a frontier. I rise with respect for Stephen Flaherty’s eclectic palette and for the tireless competence of Steven Malone and his eight colleagues in the pit. (John Reilly alone uses nine different instruments, from piccolo to bass clarinet!) The music never prods but always supports, though I would have expected a bit more in orchestral coloring from Michael Starobin, an eminent arranger.
The mind reels at sorting out the endless costume parade of Jess Goldstein, who knows how to wield period whimsy and still make everything danceable. Derek McLane’s swaggering scenery is less successful. A basic unit that keeps coming back has a balcony and a door, which Gattelli uses only intermittently. Some visions work – a Greenwich Village art studio, a socialist workers’ ballroom – but others are standard stuff.
Olivia Sebesky’s projections help often, as in a riot of roses for the flamenco, but she too frequently gets washed out by the crude and imprecise lighting design of Donald Holder, who harks back to the 1970s, when harsh white lights in the eye of the audience was considered cool. I’m really taken aback by the garish star drops and distracting light spills.
Eventually, however, the reverie is back on the beachy scene where Donna sang. She’s still there, lost in memories of her departed love, when, of all people, Hollywood’s George Chakiris appears for a couple of minutes, swanning about as a memory.
I don’t know. Donna was quite enough memory for me. No, she doesn’t dance. But, hey! When you see Willy Mays at the ballpark, he doesn’t have to hit a homerun to make the occasion special, does he?
(Continues on the Old Globe stage at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 25, 2015.)