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Dance Review:

"CONTACT" at Ford Center for the Performing Arts (Oriental Theatre)

BY LUCIA MAURO

When "Contact" received the 2000 Tony Award for Best Musical, a certain amount of controversy surrounded a show that really did not fit into any discernible category. It’s almost exclusively a dance showcase, yet it includes elements of musical theater. The current touring production of "Contact" at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts (Oriental Theatre) underscores the indefinable nature of a show that ultimately feels like a sketch for a larger musical or, more disappointingly, a hodgepodge of ultra-conventional theatrical ideas slickly packaged for mass consumption.

Director-choreographer Susan Stroman is no doubt one of the most inventive artists working on Broadway. And her talent for shaping offbeat yet impeccably structured movement pieces is evident in "Contact," whose book (if one can call it a book) was penned by John Weidman. Stroman also has a charmingly innate choreographic ability to wink at human folly while sympathetically addressing the anguish many of us struggle to conceal.

Nevertheless, "Contact" opts for broad and disconnected characterizations. Its three loosely related vignettes – linked only by the theme of individuals seeking self-fulfillment – are not substantial enough to justify an expensive evening at the theater. So audiences may feel like they’ve just left a swank cocktail party with fancy hors d’oeurvres rather than a sumptuous dinner gathering.

And, although the show boasts impeccable and electrifying dancing, it prompts a certain degree of confusion as to why we travel from 18th century France to 1950’s Queens and then modern-day Manhattan. It’s as if Stroman strung together stories that inspired her rather than honed a through-line that would speak potently to audiences.

The opening piece, "Swinging," a menage-a-trois in dance, was inspired by Jean-Honore Fragonard’s 1768 painting of a young woman on a swing tended by her nobleman lover and a servant in an idyllic pastoral setting. Stroman applies the popular aristocratic game of role-reversal (i.e. masters becoming servants and vice versa) to execute in movement unfettered sexual pleasure. Dancers Mindy Franzese Wild and Dan Sutcliffe perform acrobatic marvels on their dangerously swaying prop. But this Kama Sutra on a swing grows tired and obvious quite quickly.

It’s then jarring to get pushed into an achingly stereotypical Italian restaurant in 1950’s Queens. This ensemble work, "Did You Move?", has the potential to be a devastating study of emotional abuse. Too bad Stroman resorts to painful and unbelievable cliches. A thuggish, taciturn husband (played in a stone-faced absurdist manner by Adam Dannheisser) instructs his unfulfilled wife to stay put while he loads up on canelloni at the buffet. The ongoing – and irritatingly overlong – joke is that he can’t get any dinner rolls. Dannheisser’s main line is "Where’s my fuckin’ rolls?"

A fairly traditional fantasy sequence follows. The wife (a dynamic Meg Howrey) imagines through balletic flights of fancy that she kills her brutish spouse and runs off with the suave head waiter. Unfortunately, Stroman’s choreography relies on self-conscious Ballet 101 movements – from arabesque hold to stiffly exacting port de bras preparations to jittery tour jetes. The theme of this piece – about a wife unable to escape an abusive relationship – is hammered home so hard, it’s rendered meaningless.

"Contact" is the show’s signature piece. It encompasses the second half and is best known for the "Girl in the Yellow Dress" and Robert Palmer’s "Simply Irresistible." While Holly Cruikshank as this mystically sexy and unattainable goddess at a swing-dance club makes the whole evening worthwhile, this mini-theater piece (reminiscent of Gene Kelly’s "Gotta Dance" bit in "Singin’ in the Rain," with much borrowed from Cyd Charisse’s seductress), there is not sufficient chemistry between Cruikshank and Daniel McDonald to lend heartwrenching sizzle to the production.

As a burnt-out ad executive intent on ending his life, McDonald delivers the requisite casual, rumpled angst. But he appears too conscious of acting the part rather than being this tragically desperate soul. Dannheisser delivers a wacky star turn as the Kramer-haired bartender. But, once again, the finale relies on broad characters and plot lines rather than layered and textured dramatic nuance. Even Stroman’s notion of dance as a redeeming force gets lost in all the showy bombast.

In an ironic twist, "Contact’s" disjointed structure inadvertently mirrors some of the characters’ inability to make contact.

"Contact" runs through May 5 at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts (Oriental Theatre), 24 W. Randolph. Tickets: $32-$75. Call 312-902-1400.

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