Song, dance, dialogue, story, spectacle: These are the several pleasures of the American musical and, decade by decade, one or another of them moves into prominence. In the '30s and '40s, most musicals consisted of a string of comic or melodious songs, with whisper-thin plots holding them together. Then came works like Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel and Oklahoma! -- still predominantly bright, sweet and tuneful, but with serious plot twists and more deeply defined characters. Stephen Sondheim, hailed in the '70s as the musical's savior, offered world-weariness and irony with the macabre Sweeney Todd and sophisticated music more apt to entrance critics than to set audiences humming. Andrew Lloyd Webber took over the '80s, storming Broadway and London's West End with such huge spectaculars as Cats and Phantom of the Opera and music that was occasionally inspired, but often derivative and soppy as well -- you could always count on a moment when the heroine stepped forward into a pool of blue light to sing her yearning little heart out.
If the current Denver Center Attractions season is any indication, pure dance is back in the fore -- interestingly, a decade or two after the death of America's Baryshnikov-inspired ballet craze, and while classical-ballet companies struggle to find audiences. Last month's offering was Susan Stroman's Contact; the current show on display is Swing! If there's a thread of a story -- or even a logical sequence -- to the numbers in Swing!, I never ascertained what it was. And I'll leave it to those more knowledgeable about dance than I to discuss the history of swing and the differences among jive, Latin swing, the lindy hop, West Coast swing, hip-hop swing and country-Western swing. All I know is that I experienced a hugely enjoyable evening in which dance predominated, but music and song gave it a hell of a run for its money. A terrific band, placed so that it framed -- and sometimes took over -- the action, gave its all to a handful of new songs, along with such traditional favorites as "Stompin' at the Savoy," "Blues in the Night," "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," "I'll Be Seeing You" and, of course, "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing." The dancers, who seemed utterly delighted to be doing what they were doing, swung through a series of toe-tapping numbers by showing off, competing or cooperating, leaping into the air with feet flexed, flying, practicing all kinds of tricky partnering, combining artistry and visual appeal with pure hijinks. There were sultry Latin dances and numbers in which the dancers looked like hormone-crazed high school athletes. In "Harlem Nocturne," dancer Michelle Marmolejo played the sinuous, teasing spirit of Greg Fiellin's cello to astonishing effect. Later, in a sexy rendition of "Blues in the Night," Marmolejo got to show off her equally astonishing extensions.
The show's choreography is pleasantly democratic. There's no single star; the store of solos and duets is shared among the dancers. One of these duets is a laugh-out-loud comic number performed by Aaron Hamilton and Sarah Jenkins. He's a Jerry Lewis look-alike; she's a bright, peppy little thing determined to get him to dance. Adealani Malia, frequently partnered with the strong and expressive Robert Bottoms, brings grace, charm and elegance to everything she dances.
Temple Buell Theatre at the Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets
Through November 18, 303-893-4100
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The show jokes about the relationship of music and dance and the borders between speech and singing. Erin Davie, a slight blonde with a pure, sweet voice, begins what seems a straightforwardly torchy rendition of Arthur Hamilton's "Cry Me a River," accompanied by the lamentations of Marshall Gilkes's trombone. But then the trombone takes on a life of its own, becoming Davie's errant lover and emitting sounds indicative of contempt, empathy and remorse. There's a hilarious moment when Charles Statham places a cowboy hat on his head and is instantly overwhelmed by the rhythm of cowboy swing. And Clarolyn Maier scat-sings a sweet, funny love song called "Bli-Blip" with Statham in which the notes clearly serve as words -- even if only the lovers can understand them.
In looks, voice and presence, singer Rick Cornette -- projecting a wry sense of humor and sporting a succession of flashy, broad-lapeled suits -- is the perfect emcee for the evening. There were problems with his mike on the night we attended, but doubtless those have been dealt with by now. The orchestration is by Harold Wheeler; Doug Oberhamer played the piano and conducted. The original choreography for Swing! is by Lynne Taylor-Corbett; her work was re-created for the touring company by Kim Craven.
Apparently, Contact received greater critical acclaim in New York than Swing! -- though Swing!, too, garnered its share of kudos, including several Tony nominations. Perhaps this is because Susan Stroman's reputation as a choreographer is currently red-hot, and some of the moves in Contact appear to carry significance, where Swing! offers nothing more than a good time. But Swing! seems to me the better of the two shows. I like its lack of pretension and the fact that, although it's precisely choreographed -- they'd be carrying dancers off on stretchers if it weren't -- it gives an overall impression of playfulness, risk and improvisation.
One number in particular breaks free of convention: Two of the women dance on a specially made bungee-swing contraption that sends them soaring into space and plunging dizzily to earth again, marrying a transcendent sense of flight to the sheer childishness of bouncing. "For years," said my daughter the ballerina as we walked out of the theater, "I've had dreams where I can bounce like that."