McCarter’s TEN CENTS A DANCE High Performance Art

by Jack Shaw

For the McCarter Theatre Center’s performance of TEN CENTS A DANCE, Tony Award-winning director (SWEENEY TODD, 2006), John Doyle put together a fantastic complement of experienced Broadway actors, including Donna McKechnie who won a Tony Award for her performance as “Cassie” in A CHORUS LINE, and Malcolm Gets, who received Tony and Drama Desk nominations for NEW YORK: VIGIL, THE STORY OF MY LIFE, and AMOUR. The rest of the cast is equally amazing in performance, if not on paper–yet. These actors don’t just sing; they also play various musical instruments throughout the show. TEN CENTS A DANCE can truly be called theatre art at its best.

McCarter Theatre presents Elisa Winter (cello), Malcolm Gets (piano) and Jane Pfitsch (violin) in TEN CENTS A DANCE. For tickets, call (609) 258-2787 or online at (Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)

The theme, as in most musicals, revolves around romantic love–that most powerful and mysterious of emotions; however, Doyle’s is not a story of found and lost love. What romantic love does to us is not portrayed in a way you’ve seen before. Here it becomes an addiction told through the words and music of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and the creativity of John Doyle in collaboration with his wonderful cast and designers. However, it is not a “gleeful” rendition of Rodgers and Hart songs.

While technically still a revue of Rodgers and Hart songs, it is unlike any revue I’ve ever seen. Some might even consider it a songbook musical like MAMMA MIA, JERSEY BOYS, or BUDDY. It could be one of those musicals that uses the combination of songs to tell the story–except there isn’t a story–not a linear one anyway. But for all its musical theatre indicators (it is still musical theatre by strict definition), I think this show fits more in the realm of performance art, although others might say it defies definition altogether.

In addition to Doyle’s concept and direction, this superb theatre art production owes much to Scott Pask’s brilliantly designed set, Jane Cox’s fantastic lighting, Dan Moses Schreier’s super sound, and of course, the ensemble’s unbelievable acting and singing as well as performing “the dance of life.” Of course, there wouldn’t be much of a “dance of life” on stage without the music of Rodgers and Hart chosen for this theatre creation. From the beginning on stage, there is a dreamlike state of undefined despair, set with sparse lighting, a somber mood created by its single male actor, vacillating shadows, the five Miss Jones’ moving on stage with an almost zombie-like rhythm, the musical selections played slowly at times, halting for effect on occasion. The depiction on stage is not a happy dream; it is often close to a nightmare. It seems an illustration of regret, guilt and helplessness. At other times there is a bright light. A realization. A truth revealed?

TEN CENTS A DANCE does not celebrate love, but brings out the gloomier truth about romance, making us question why we want romance in its most pristine form like the purest drug, and some of us can’t break free from the habit. We are addicted to the feeling in its earliest stages, while still giddy and carefree. We live in a fog. We kid ourselves and rationalize our behavior, yet we keep getting our fix until we are wasting our lives away for a taste of the high for “a dime a dance.” In the end, at least this is what the play said to me, we are stuck with knowing we cannot stop or prevent the habit once we have tasted it.

TEN CENTS A DANCE cast in full swing! Playing at McCarter Theatre through October 9. For tickets, call (609) 258-2787 or online at (Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)

Here, too, it seemed the audience is allowed to step in with some obvious answers. Should we allow ourselves to let the romantic love evolve and mature even though it is not as momentous or maintain the same high, and accept romantic love’s ethereal nature? Not everyone can do it seems to be Doyle’s conclusion. And, he may be right. Of course, I could have it all wrong. This is art, after all, and open to your interpretation.

Meanwhile, we have a high quality performance, using Rodgers and Hart “love” songs, which I didn’t know could be so deep in meaning, and theatre art combined to create a unique point of view. Creator/Director John Doyle, along with his talented, equity cast and crew have beautifully executed one of the most unusual musicals or performance art pieces I have ever seen.

To put the performance in some sort of perspective, I have to say I found it thoughtful and provocative. The inherent problem with the more serious musicals is that the best ones have a story or backdrop that’s not something one normally wants to sing about; however, with theatre artistry you can have a TITANIC and BLOOD BROTHERS–musicals that work despite the gloomy end. TEN CENTS A DANCE takes the risks art takes on a topic we’d rather see portrayed happily, and does a great job in the capable company’s hands. It is definitely worth seeing, but don’t expect the usual musical fare. It’s not ANYTHING GOES or NO, NO NANETTE, but it’s not TITANIC either. While there may not be a happy ending, it is an amazing accomplishment in the world of theatre art.

The Music and Lyrics of Rodgers and Hart
Conceived and Directed by John Doyle
September 9 – October 9, 2011
Berlind Theatre
McCarter Theatre Center
91 University Place
Princeton, NJ 08544
(609) 258-2787

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