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Off-Broadway has a winner in Shakespeare-based ‘Dancin’ (from the archives)

This story on Jennifer Garner was originally published in the Miami Herald on Oct. 29, 1994. She mentions in her video interview how appreciative she was of the positive review.

Warning: We are about to discuss a show involving the “S” word, which to theatergoers who like their entertainment light is generally as off-putting as the “m” word (marriage) is to the commitment-phobic. That “S” word is, of course, Shakespeare.

Producer Brian C. Smith has just opened the new John R. Briggs-Dennis West musical Dancin’ With the One I Love at his Off-Broadway Theatre in Wilton Manors, and though early publicity carefully danced around the issue, Dancin' is most definitely a fresh take on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.

I know, I know, there already has been a musical version of Shrew, Cole Porter’s 1948 Kiss Me, Kate, which had a more-than- respectable initial Broadway run of 1,070 performances. So why do we need another singing Shrew?

I kept pondering that question during the early moments of Dancin’, listening to songs that didn't seem as special as Porter’s and watching some of the actors overreach the comedy.

Then, like its dazzling leads, Dancin’ With the One I Love seemed to change on a dime.

It had cheekiness and moxie, great choreography and an array of wonderful performances. It told Shakespeare's story of a warring couple with relish, retaining many of the famous speeches while paying homage to the Fred-and-Ginger movie musicals. I loved it.

Director-adaptor Briggs, who has a penchant for playing around with Shakespeare's works, has set Dancin' With the One I Love in the lavish lobby of a Palm Beach hotel circa 1936. He updates here and there — Lucentio and Tranio are now Harvard students visiting Florida for spring break —but sticks close to Shakespeare's proven plot. Although, perhaps taking in a feminist perspective, he doesn't make Kate’s subjugation by Petruchio seem so humiliating or so total.

None of the songs is going to displace Porter’s, but they get the job done, inviting memories of Cab Calloway and Tiny Tim and Let’s Misbehave and Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off. It's a Tough Job (But Someone's Got To Do It) becomes the occasion for not one but two exuberant tap numbers, and like all the dance sequences, they're inventively and evocatively choreographed by Lynnette Barkley.

Leading lady Laurie Gamache, a veteran of Broadway's A Chorus Line, conveys a Kate who's far more complex than the shrewish stereotype. Underneath the anger is a real longing for love, and Gamache expresses Kate's feelings with rueful beauty in both My Attitude and Nobody Loves Me. As for her dancing, it's real Ginger Rogers time.

As her partner, Chris Kayser is Petruchio as Fred Astaire, a Southern gentleman who'd just as soon tap while Tara burns. Lanky and assured, he helps make the eventual Petruchio-Kate romance incendiary.

The secondary lovers, Wayne LeGette as Lucentio and Jennifer Garner as Bianca, are dandy, too. Garner is a breathtaking find, as radiantly beautiful as Geena Davis but a completely adept (if sexy) comedian.

It's a great cast -- Ken H. Roberts, Michael Pantone, Eric Stone and Reggie Whitehead deserve special mention -- with everybody dancing and singing the dickens out of the show.

Dancin' With the One I Love was an expensive, risky gamble for Smith. But for anyone who plays along -- and everyone from students to seniors should -- the payoff is one delightful musical experience. And maybe a little less fear of the “S” word.

THEATER REVIEW

DANCIN' WITH THE ONE I LOVE

Cast: Laurie Gamache, Chris Kayser, Ken H. Roberts, Jennifer Garner, Michael Pantone, Edmond Dante, Gail Byer, Wayne LeGette, Eric Stone, Darryl Reuben Hall, Reggie Whitehead, Michael DeLuca, Peter Gordon, Stephanie McNeil, Stacey Lynn Martin, Michyl-Shannon Quilty, Kerry Sensenbach.

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