Ten Cents a Dance, conceived and directed by John Doyle, music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Lorenz Hart.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"God, how they weigh me down."
Despair; Rejection; Angst; Bogus; Fury; Sour notes; Rage; Unmitigated; Bitterness; Misery; Refuse; Sorrow; Dissonance; Forlorn; Violence; Heartsick; Malevolence; Fetid; Pathetic; Ambush; Damage; Sham; Liability; Malignity: Two dozen words I have never used before in a review. I will not use them again in this one, but I thought they needed to be out there, just to set the proper mood.
"Ten Cents a Dance" is an 80 minute intermissionless (no one would come back in to the theater for a second act) musical tirade about absolutely nothing. It devalues itself almost from the beginning to something more reasonably stated as ha’penny a dance and - by the way - there is no dancing in this performance; I cannot call it a show. It isn’t a show. It’s a show-off sequence by a director who cannot create anything. John Doyle has been rewarded in the past for his "innovative" money saving rapes of classic American musicals produced without orchestra and with his actors compelled to compensate for that by playing musical instruments, usually when they’re not singing but not always, and generally but not always with a low level of competence. In the case of this Rodgers and Hart compilation, playing instruments isn’t always the right way to go for these actors, especially when some of that musical stretching is incompetent and some of it is simply faked.
Five women dressed in the same gown, but not quite the same gown, and wearing the same flame-thrower wig, but not quite the same wig, walk circles around a man who plays the piano in spite of himself, and in spite of the fact that there doesn’t really seem to be a playable keyboard on his piano. The man likes to take long pauses and in them nothing happens. Then he takes off an article of clothing and nothing happens. Then the women walk circles around him again. Fascinating stuff, isn’t it?
The man, played by Malcolm Gets, enters slowly and with emotional difficulty down a long circular staircase, eventually followed by the five women who can easily be mistaken for one another in spite of the fact that one of them is obviously Donna McKechnie in a role she should have reconsidered after the read-through for this American musical star does not even have one song to perform. After the sturm-und-drang of Gets’s character’s inner torment the canker on stage begins with some one handed notes on the piano, a half lyric sung in a half interested manner and the thing is on its way to its inexorable conclusion, halfway up the stairs. The Finish. Bravo. Ooops: sick encore. More Bravo. Audiences, it seems, especially the staff of the theater in the rear rows, will stand up and cheer for almost anything just because it’s over. I shouted to the woman two rows in front of me to sit back down, but she ignored me. Standing ovations, folks, need to be reserved for things that are phenomenally good, not things that have come to an end. Try to remember that the next time you are confronted by drek - a Yiddish word meaning this presentation. And, by the way I counted seven people who pushed their way out of the center section of the orchestra during the show. When did you last see that happen in a Berkshire theater?
This season at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Artistic Director Jenny Gersten has managed to annihilate Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece "A Streetcar Named Desire," to destroy the centuries old impact of a door slam in Henrik Ibsen’s "A Doll’s House," and now to downgrade to the rank of amateur the brilliant songs of Rodgers and Hart in dismal arrangements by Mary-Mitchell Campbell. Thank God their season is over! She might have taken down the entire canon of theater. Not that she is alone in this quest. She has had the help of many who have allowed her fine old summer theater to become a laughing stock and a much pitied venue.
Let me share with you the official public relations description of this show from the press release I have received no fewer than five times in the past two weeks: "Crooner Johnny wistfully recalls his lifelong love affair of chorus girl Miss Jones, who is embodied by five women, each portraying a different stage of her life. As Johnny and Miss Jones take ‘Manhattan’ under a ‘Blue Moon’ while ‘Falling in Love with Love,’ you can’t help but think ‘Isn’t it Romantic?’ - even if sometimes ‘The Lady is a Tramp.’ These and so many other unforgettable songs - filled with infatuation, longing, and enchantment - will sparkle like a glass of champagne on a sexy summer evening. ‘All you need is a ticket, come on big boy, ten cents a dance.’"
If anything other than some of those songs exist in this presentation on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival it would be considered a miracle. A. He doesn’t croon. B. There is nothing wistful in this show. C. What love affair? Prove it? D. There are no different stages of her life portrayed; each woman is just a mirror of her other selves in some limbo somewhere in someone’s rank imagination. E. No. Nothing here is romantic including the dark, dreary, depressing arrangements of some of the best songs ever written. F. Sparkle? In the dimmest, drabest lighting possible? No. F. Sexy - not in those dresses and not in that undershirt either. G. Ten Cents - make that change back in the hand, please.
Scott Pask designed the incredibly ridiculous set. Ann Hould-Ward embarrasses herself with the costumes. Jane Cox needs to go back to illumination school after this lighting plot and Dan Moses-Schreier, sound designer, needs to look at the pots on his board and decide which way is louder, which way is softer. Paul Huntley’s weird wigs are not up to his usual standard and Mary-Mitchell Campbell plays a fine piano...somewhere, I suppose.
The cast of women includes Diana DiMarzio, Lauren Molina, Jane Pfitsch, and Jessica Tyler Wright all of whom, clearly, have done what was asked of them. They can all relax again in two weeks when this is all over. This production in association with the McCarter Theatre Center will hopefully die here in Williamstown and never show its face in Princeton, New Jersey where students are already known to be depressed and likely to consider suicide - this show would push them over the edge.
T.M.I.? Or not enough? Take the risk if you dare, but if anyone is organizing a protest march over the banal and base treatment of Rodgers and Hart, or the talented actors who have been set out before audiences only to lose their reputations and standing in their fans eyes or the fine playwrights whose works have been misrepresented this summer, let me know. I’ll change my schedule and carry a banner.
Ten Cents a Dance plays in Williamstown at the ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance through August 28. You can look up the box office number yourself and, by the way, no production photos were made available by press night. Use your imagination.