Starring Boyd Gaines, Rebecca Luker, and Tiler Peck
Direction and Choreography by Susan Stroman
Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Eisenhower Theater, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC; November 20, 2014
I had my doubts that a new musical based on Edgar Degas’s famous statute, “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen”, could succeed. It seemed like such a flimsy idea. And, although I knew the role of the little dancer, Young Marie van Goethem, was created for Tiler Peck, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet, I worried. Can she act and sing as well as she dances, I wondered. I hope many of you will have the chance to decide for yourselves. It turns out that this new musical is well worth seeing, for ballet fans and theater lovers alike.
Ballet, not surprisingly, is at the heart of “Little Dancer”. I didn’t find Susan Stroman’s choreography particularly imaginative, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. It’s hard to picture anyone excelling in the role of Young Marie more than Peck, who attacked her part with admirable charm. Her dancing was flawless. While her singing could use more work (she doesn’t actually sing all that often), Peck exuded an infectious spunk that completely won me over, despite her acting being a tad over-the-top.
“Little Dancer” begins with a large wooden box marked ‘Fragile’ in the center of the stage. Around the entire stage is a huge gold frame, a nice touch given that the focus of the musical is art. In place of the box appeared a ballerina with a long hair ribbon fiddling with her skirt (Young Marie played by Tiler Peck). She then promptly disappears, and the box returns. Next, in place of Young Marie, Adult Marie (Rebecca Luker) shows up. The adult Marie claims to be the model for Degas’s famous statue and begs to see it. Marie’s unfurling story (her childhood, her ballet ambitions, and her time posing for Degas) forms the structure around which the musical is based.
“Little Dancer” is visually stunning thanks to the scenic design by Beowulf Boritt, the costume design by William Ivey Long, the lighting design by Ken Billington, and the production design by Benjamin Pearcy. Kaleidoscopic colors cover the stage. Pretty smudged pastels and soft tulle treated my eyes, but so did the garish brightness of the can-can girls and the sorrowful bedraggled look of Marie’s mother Martine (Karen Ziemba), all taken directly from Degas’s paintings. Indeed, “Little Dancer” breathes life into the work of Degas to such an extent that it makes you want to reach out and touch the richness. Even the Paris slum from which Young Marie and her fellow “rats” (the name given young aspiring ballet dancers) emerge has a quaintness about it that pulls you into that world without hesitation.
Peck’s cheerfulness and cunning made me root for her, and Degas (Boyd Gaines) had much the same reaction in the end. The relationship of Young Marie and Degas changes from thief and victim (Young Marie stole a pocket-watch from Degas), to model and artist, to inspiration and adoring father figure. As the pair moved from bickering to mutual appreciation, so the audience grew in its love for them both.
In addition to the changing relationship between Degas and Young Marie, the musical delivers plenty of subplots. Young Marie has a love interest, of course, a handsome and kind curly-mopped musician named Christian (Kyle Harris). He sang her sweet songs, “Musicians and Dancers and Fools”, and “Dancing Still”, which are among the musical’s most memorable tunes. All of the casting I thought was great, but as for voices, two stuck out to me – the stellar sparkly clear voice of Sophia Anne Caruso as Charlotte, Young Marie’s little sister, and the powerful voice of Jenny Powers as Marie’s older sister, Antoinette. Powers belted out “Little Opportunities”, alluding to the manner in which she learned to survive. The musical informs us that Marie’s big sister, once a dancer like Marie, was forced to turn to prostitution to bring home money. We’re told that the usual course for a young dancer with the Paris Opera Ballet was to find a patron, or a few, to support her artistic pursuits. Toe shoes come with a significant price tag, after all. Lines like “ballet has no pity,” definitely struck a chord.
Before seeing the musical, I erroneously assumed that “Little Dancer” would steer clear of the sexual innuendo that trailed young dancers like Marie, but Act 2 dragged that creepiness into the storyline even further, making the musical much less saccharine than the relatively upbeat Disneyesque Act 1. In the second act, Young Marie becomes the object of a disturbing game of chase. As she ran through narrow passages in the theater’s underbelly, my heart raced. The man chasing her, her sister Antoinette’s wealthy lover Philippe (Sean Martin Hingston), sang “I’ll Follow You”, a frightening stalker ballad that I couldn’t have anticipated. Also in Act 2 is the musical’s longest dance sequence, “The Little Dancer Ballet”, in which Peck freely lets loose her skills.Overall, “Little Dancer” offers fine performances. I feel the songs are a bit humdrum, and the tale itself is mostly predictable, but plenty of great musicals fit that description. What sets this musical apart from others I’ve seen lately (far apart) was the ballet. The dancing was well incorporated into the drama, and Peck truly shined in her lead role. She’s got a very engaging stage presence and certainly held her own on a stage full of veteran talents. I would leap at the chance to see “Little Dancer” on Broadway, so I hope it makes it there!