Having achieved fame as a leading Broadway choreographer and a short ballet creator, Susan Stroman has extended her reach with her first-full length ballet, "Double Feature," for the New York City Ballet, which premiered it January 23, 2004. While some balletomanes rooted to the more classical might have reservations, Stroman's achievement, inventively blending Broadway, Hollywood and the ballet world, is so delightful in concept and execution that it merits becoming a popular, highly entertaining part of the company's repertoire. It is also a work which dancers should enjoy performing.
"Double Feature" engages the audience with its vaudeville-style curtain announcing the double bill about to be seen, "The Blue Necklace," with music by Irving Berlin, "a thrilling melodrama of a great actress and the daughter she left behind," and "Makin' Whoopee!," with music by Walter Donaldson. The second attraction is based on Roi Cooper Megrue's "Seven Chances," and film buffs will fondly remember it in the hands of Buster Keaton.
In both parts of Stroman's ballet, Robin Wagner's scenery, William Ivey Long's costumes and Mark Stanley's lighting add immeasurably and stunningly to the total concept, nearly all a movie-tone vision in black, white and gray, with only the occasional and therefore specially effective dash of color. With a nod to silent films, titles are projected on a large screen to elaborate on plot and dialogue, giving the work a strong narrative flavor.
In "The Blue Necklace" Maria Kowroski dances the role of Dorothy Brooks, who, aspiring toward her acting career, has a secret--being pregnant--and after giving birth she deposits her baby at a church doorway. No sooner does she disappear, along comes Jason Fowler as Mr. Griffith to put his baby at the doorway. The church entrance is getting crowded, which is good for a laugh. Griffith has second thoughts, scooping up both babies to bring home to his angry wife (Kyra Nichols), who complains there isn't enough money to raise one. Mabel, Dorothy's daughter, with whom her mother left a blue necklace, is destined to be raised as the unwanted one, while Florence, the Griffiths' own child, is favored--and gets the necklace. Anyone familiar with the ways of silent movie melodrama can make a good stab at predicting the rest.
Stroman peppers the dancing with engaging ideas, including dancers in a chorus line looking like veterans of "42nd Street" or the Rockettes. In other highlights Tara Sorine and Isabella Tobias are charming as young Mabel and Florence, and Ashley Bouder and Megan Fairchild shine as the older girls. Damian Woetzel, dancing a key role as movie idol Billy Randolph with stunning technique in is solo, is a crowd-pleaser. A broad selection of Berlin hits has been deftly arranged by Glen Kelly, with orchestrations by Doug Besterman, to provide a lively, melodic underpinning to Stroman's creativity.
In "Makin' Whoopee!," which even includes a cute, wonderfully trained dog as a show-stealer, Tom Gold is to be celebrated for his outstanding work dancing the role of Jimmie Shannon, partnered in a firm that desperately needs windfall to make up for some shady doings. The opportunity comes when he is left $7 million by his uncle, but with the specification that he be married by a deadline on his birthday, which happens to be that very day. Jimmie resembling Keaton in manner and dress down to the trademark hat, has been unable to convince Anne (Alexandra Ansanelli), the woman he loves, to marry him. An article about the unusual will in the New York Times (how the same day news deadline was met we'll never know) sends a stream of would-be brides in bridal gowns to the designated church, including male dancers in drag.
Stroman has plenty of fun with her choreographed chases a la silent films as Jimmie tries to elude his pursuers and get to marry the girl on his mind. Earlier in "Makin' Whoopee!" Jimmie proposes to one woman after another passing in the park, each effort without result, and there's a big laugh earned when after one encounter the woman's brush-off is flashed on screen as a long comment in Russian. It is typical of the sense of humor that runs through the ballet, which captures Stroman's evident love of movies and her search for ways to deepen her art as she reaches beyond the boundaries of what she has accomplished before. Reviewed at the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center. Tickets: 212-307-4100. For information: 212-870-5570 or www.nycballet.com.