Ostensibly, the shows performed each summer at Vassar’s Powerhouse Theater are works-in-progress – some in the early stages of development, others being polished prior to moving on to Broadway, Off-Broadway or top “out-of-town tryout” venues. The song-and-dance pastiche In Your Arms, which opened last weekend and will run through Sunday, July 13, seems just about ready for primetime. In fact, I’d highly recommend catching it right now, before it moves someplace where tickets command three-figure prices. Not to put too fine a point on it, In Your Arms is a knockout and deserves a long run.
Directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, who won the 2012 Choreography Tony for Newsies, with music and lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (Seussical, Once on this Island, Ragtime), this production is not so much a standard musical play as a series of dramatic dance numbers, loosely connected by the theme of romance and performed by a crackerjack cast. Among them the creators and performers can claim 14 Tony Awards, five Pulitzer Prizes and one Academy Award; to list all their honors would take up several pages of this publication.
The ten “vignettes,” most of which have little or no dialogue, were written by a veritable Who’s Who of contemporary American theater: Douglas Carter Beane, Nilo Cruz, Christopher Durang, Carrie Fisher, David Henry Hwang, Rajiv Joseph, Terrence McNally, Marsha Norman, Lynn Nottage and Alfred Uhry. The show opens and closes with an ensemble number featuring singer Debbie Gravitte (Jerome Robbins’ Broadway). In between, every style of dance from classical ballet to swing, tap to tango, rock ’n’ roll to Charleston, modern to jazz is explored with great skill and verve.
You definitely don’t need to be a dance nerd to enjoy In Your Arms thoroughly. In its variety of forms, all expertly performed, the show gallops by, its tone alternately celebratory, wistful, fiery, slapstick, tender, disturbing and nostalgic.
It’s tough to pick out a few highlights for special mention, since the whole show is so uniformly top-shelf in both material and execution. Comic actress/dancer Jenn Harris just about steals the show with her loopy moves as the bored female half of the Russian team in a reality-TV-style dance-off who suddenly falls for the male half of the American team in Christopher Durang’s The Dance Contest. She also hilariously portrays the author, Princess Leia side-buns and all, in Carrie Fisher’s Lowdown Messy Shame, only to be upstaged by a killer tap routine from Jess LeProtto (Newsies).
Flamenco dance heats up the stage in a Spanish Civil War-era love triangle in Nilo Cruz’s The Lover’s Jacket, as danced by Glenda Sol, Peter Suarez and Seán Martin Hingston. George de la Peña and Ryan Steele (another Newsies veteran) perform a sensual pas de deux as ex-lovers who meet again as closeted judges at a Jazz Age beauty contest for female impersonators in Douglas Carter Beane’s Artists and Models, 1929. Alex Michael Stoll as the American boss of an Asia-based business gets knocked on the head and dreams of learning wire-fu and ribbon dancing from his secretary, played by Kristen Faith Oei, in David Henry Hwang’s White Snake.
The last turn around the stage before the big finale is taken by an old couple reliving memories of youthful play by the seaside in Terrence McNally’s Sand Dancing, featuring two showbiz veterans: Carole Shelley, whose exquisite Tony-winning performance as Mrs. Kendal will never be forgotten by anyone who saw the original Broadway production of The Elephant Man, and Robert Morse, who originated the role of J. Pierpont Finch in How to Succeed in Business…, copped a second Tony for his portrayal of Truman Capote in Tru and just recently had his character Bertram Cooper killed off on Mad Men. Morse is now 83, Shelley 74, so they’re no longer hoofing it up; but the pair’s gentle two-step winds down this high-energy dance extravaganza sweetly enough to leave the audience feeling a bit misty-eyed.
The entire 25-member company of In Your Arms is topnotch. As befits a show with minimal dialogue, the dancers don’t just dance; they act with their every move. It’s compelling storytelling, not mere razzle-dazzle. Go see this show; it’s headed for greater things and costlier venues – no doubt about it.
Powerhouse Theater presents In Your Arms in the Martel Theater at the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film on the Vassar College campus beginning at 8 p.m. on Wednesday through Saturday, July 9 to 12 and at 7 p.m. on Sunday, July 13, with 2 p.m. matinées on Saturday and Sunday, July 12 and 13. All seats for all performances cost $40. To order, call (845) 437-5599 or visit https://powerhouse.vassar.edu.
Powerhouse Theater presents In Your Arms, July 9-13, Wednesday-Friday, 8 p.m., Saturday, 2 & 8 p.m., Sunday, 2 & 7 p.m., $40, Martel Theater, Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film, Vassar College, 124 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie; (845) 437-5599, https://powerhouse.vassar.edu.