Dancing with Abandon
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
August 24, 2009
Dancing with Abandon shows ambition and promise. Karen Hartman, who wrote the music and co-wrote the book and lyrics with Phil Lebovits, mixes opera, rock, ballad, and comedy. The plot is operatic in scope—triggered by abandonment, enriched by passion, filled with narcissism, cruelty and love.
The story revolves around Alice, whose ambition is to become an opera diva. There are obstacles: an absent father, a cruel mother, and a ne'er-do-well handsome Italian lover, Alfred Boccacio. Despite everything, Alice achieves her dream and on the night she is to be honored at the Kennedy Center, her son, Dwayne Boccacio, shows up and causes enough chaos for Alice's award to be withdrawn. She descends into Bellevue, and he takes advantage of the notoriety and books a hateful gig in Las Vegas. Maturing and coming to his senses, he returns to his mother, appalled at how far she has fallen. The healing and their reconciliation begin.
Jeremy Dobrish directs a barrel of talent with precision. Natalie Charle Ellis plays Young Alice with grace and pathos. As Alice, Sandy Binion sings arias from Madama Butterfly, and makes the parallels between the opera and her character's life palpable. In a bit of interesting color-blind casting—or perhaps it is meant to add irony—Ronica V. Reddick, an African American, plays Alice's Jewish mother, whose Yiddishisms take on a surprising note of cruelty. She does not come across as being Jewish, and any intended humor comes from the incongruity of a beautiful statuesque black woman frequently resorting to Yiddish. Still, Reddick lends style and strong vocals to her role. Jonathon Andrew Kline, the father, combines the shiftiness of an elusive father with the easy manner of one who knows how to drop encouraging platitudes and then split. Zachary Clause gives Dwayne an unsympathetic intensity, which allows him to grow and soften as the plot unfolds.
Hartman and Lebovits's book is sprinkled with a generous portion of loony humor. Some is funny, but there seems to be a lack of smooth transitions to the more successful serious segments. Along the same lines, some plot elements appear too contrived. For example, Dwayne, raised by the Italian Boccacios, learns that Alice is his mother by finding his birth certificate on the floor in front of him. Why did the Boccacios keep it from him? Where did the birth certificate come from? On the other hand, a music box, given to Alice by her father, serves as an excellent thread of loss and longing, and it is passed from Young Alice to the diva, Alice, very smoothly. Every time it is opens, Alice's father appears to offer encouragement and advice.
Hartman's music shows versatility, and the lyrics move the story line along. Standout songs for me: "She's Up" by Alice and the ensemble; "Rock Me Mama," a duet by Dwayne and Alice; and "Finale," a simple, poignant song sung by Alice and the ensemble predicting resolution.
The strong design team keeps elements simple and articulate to support a talented cast. An accomplished four-piece band accompanies. Well-paced, visually eye-catching choreography by Vince Pesce keeps Dancing with Abandon moving for an uninterrupted two hours.