by Anthony Chase
New Ahrens and Flaherty Musical
Edgar Degas’ sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen is possibly the most beloved work by the artist best known for his paintings. Unveiled at the 6th Impressionist Exhibition in 1881, the work made its model, Marie Geneviève van Goethem, a ballet student and dancer with the Paris Opera Ballet one of the most famous dancers in the world. Little is known of what became of young Marie, a Belgian girl from and extremely poor family, who was dismissed from the ballet in the year following the exhibition for missing classes.
Marie’s story has fascinated generations and inspired a number of fictionalized and documentary accounts. The latest of these is a lavish musical by librettist Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime, Once on this Island), directed by Susan Stroman (The Producers) now playing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
The production looks gorgeous. With set design by Beowulf Boritt who won the Tony Award last year with his design for Act One at Lincoln Center, costumes by William Ivey Long, and light by Ken Billington. The idea is that we are seeing ever shifting views of Degas’ paintings saturated with color, from his numerous studies of dancers to his Absinthe Drinker in a Café. These all lead up to the revealing of the “Little Dancer,” which inspires gasps and applause from the audience.
The music is fresh and wonderfully engaging. Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics are clever and powerful. The story is intriguing, even if it meanders and key characters are left undeveloped.
The cast is brimming with big Broadway names. Four-time Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines (Gypsy, The Heidi Chronicles) plays Degas. Three-time Tony Award nominee Rebecca Luker (Mary Poppins, The Music Man) plays the adult Marie. Tony winner Karen Ziemba (Contact, Steel Pier) plays Marie’s mother.
New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Tiler Peck is remarkably appealing as young Marie.
The critical reception in Washington has been mixed, making the show’s Broadway prospects uncertain. Most of the criticism has been directed at the book, which I, too, found to be unfocused, particularly in the first act. I found myself wondering why such a delightful show was moving so slowly. In its current form, the story is bogged down in the imagined details of Marie’s family—her mother, her vulnerable younger sister, her jaded older sister—while the characters in the world of ballet and art are underwritten. The balance seems to want to tilt in the other direction, for the world of art and ballet is where the action of the story turns.
In one pivotal moment, Marie wins a featured role in a new ballet and the ballet mistress, played by Buffalo’s Michele Ragusa, warns the girl to stop modeling for Degas. The entire plot hinges on the fact that this advice goes unheeded, and yet, the moment is glossed over in favor of charm songs relegated to Marie’s mother and older sister, which frankly seemed like crowd-pleasing distractions.
In the structure of the story, the ballet mistress and the child’s mother are set up as perfect foils—the former a strict but loving disciplinarian with her eye on the girl’s future; the latter a broken down woman who blackens the girl’s eye on the eve of her fateful audition and who lives only for the present. This contrast is not developed dramatically or musically, however, and one wonders, with a Broadway star cast as the mother, if this imbalance is correctable.
The pedigree of the show is impressive and it is very close to being a great musical. Time will tell if it will get the doctoring it needs.
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