nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 28, 2005
Thus far, only a couple hundred people have gotten to see Antoinette Dipietropolo and Mark Lonergan's budding masterpiece Powerhouse. (I was one of those lucky few.) But if the theatre gods are just and proper, then very soon everybody will have the chance. Vivacious, funny, touching, and enormously entertaining, Powerhouse is music-theatre dynamite. It belongs on Broadway as a very worthy successor to Twyla Tharp & Billy Joel's Movin' Out, the existing show that this exciting and inventive new work most resembles. I am convinced that audiences are going to love it. Producers, do your thing.
Because Powerhouse's young creators, director Lonergan and choreographer Dipietropolo, have done theirs—and how! Specifically, what they've done is to create a valentine—in music, movement, and dance—to the pure and unfettered glory of youthful idealism and what we used to call good old-fashioned American know-how. And they've done it in a staging idiom that's part classical ballet, part jazz dance, part vaudeville, and entirely their own; to the swinging, sophisticated melodies of '30s/'40s composer Raymond Scott.
The hero of Powerhouse is a young man from Georgia named Clay. As the story opens, he has just graduated from college with a degree in architecture and been offered a job at a high-powered New York City firm. He says goodbye to his parents and hops on the bus to New York, his heart filled with hope. (It is one of Powerhouse's great strengths that Clay's emotional state is unwaveringly clear to us throughout.)
He arrives in the Big Apple and, after a temporary setback when he discovers that his apartment is roughly the size of an elevator shaft (a terrific visual joke by director Lonergan and lighting designer Eric Kwak), he sets out to become acquainted with his new home. The sites, sounds, and rhythms of the City that have intoxicated new arrivals since Henry Hudson quickly win over this young man. Before too long, he's found—at a Starbucks, of all places—someone who appears to be the girl of his dreams, a pretty young woman named Sarah.
Clay and Sarah grow close; at work, he fast becomes a rising star. Everything seems to be going according to plan. And then, something sad happens (I won't tell you what), and Clay's life comes up short, and then changes. (Dipietropolo choreographs Clay's transition to a new maturity at this point gorgeously, and dancer Tim McGarrigal rises to the challenge breathtakingly, in a number set to Scott's "Tobacco Auctioneer.") Clay gets a big assignment at the firm: the chance to design a bridge connecting Staten Island and Manhattan. He obsesses over the project, even having nightmares about it—leading to the evening's most glorious sequence, a dream ballet featuring one of the most stunning and inventive transformations I can remember (to a tune called "Baseline Generator"). Clay awakens, realigns his priorities, and heads toward a well-deserved happy ending.
Lonergan and Dipietropolo populate Clay's saga with a host of recognizable New York types, from scheming co-workers to hands-outstretched-bellmen to preternaturally wise bag ladies; there are scenes depicting familiar rituals like a sleigh ride through Central Park, and trips to department stores and coffee shops and exotic Asian restaurants. Every moment is staged with warmth and humor: one of the things I love best about Powerhouse is the palpable affection that Lonergan and Dipietropolo have for their creations. Smart without being cynical and wise without being world-weary, they give us a New York for the perpetually adventurous—a place that can be the fulfillment of every young dreamer's aspirations. Sure, the real thing isn't quite like this—but ain't it nice to spend a couple of hours in an idealized version of America's City that nurtures as well as intimidates?
The piece, which contains not a single spoken word, uses Scott's playful music as evocative setting for this upbeat tale. A wide vocabulary of movements from the worlds of dance and new vaudeville give expression to the characters with vivid clarity—there are almost no places in the piece where it's not crystal clear what's going on. (Modest, witty props, courtesy of Katrina Denney, provide important cues here and there.) Mainly, what Lonergan, Dipietropolo and their dancers do is get inside the hearts and souls of their characters—no matter how seemingly minor—to make each one a fully-fleshed out individual whose emotions and feelings veritably burst out of them in time to the pulsing music.
Being more familiar with Lonergan's work (Velocity, White/Noise/Jump), I was able to recognize some of his signature moves here, such as an architect's brief poetical dance with a pencil or a thrillingly joyous moment when a pair of construction workers hike our hero Clay up on a beam they're carrying—a bit right out of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Dipietropolo brings, I think, more formalized aspects to the work. Their collaboration is seamless and beautiful, ranging from finely polish comical vignettes to high-energy all-out-dance sequences (like the terrific '60s-inflected numbers "Mountain High, Valley Low" and "Christmas Night in Harlem") to soaringly emotional segments like the jubilant climax (the title tune, "Powerhouse") and denouement ("Blue Blue Blue Blue Blue").
McGarrigal is nothing less than brilliant in the marathon title role; the entire supporting cast is likewise excellent, with particular standouts including Alison Solomon as the Homeless Girl, Coreen Quagliano as Sarah, Ryan Kasprzak as Clay's boss, Reed Davis and Katrina Denney as Clay's parents, and Jackie Cutburth in a variety of roles. Kwak's lighting is spectacularly good. Staging and technical effects overall are seamless and smooth.
The only bad news is that Powerhouse made its brief appearance at Joyce SoHo for one weekend only at the end of January. This needs to be rectified. Theatre this beautiful, affirming, and genre-defying is essential: there simply has to be a home for Powerhouse in New York. Until that happens, find out more about this show and the people behind it at the Parallel Exit website. My fingers are crossed that we'll be hearing much more about Powerhouse in the very near future.