BOSTON — When the local summer theater schedules were announced — with the requisite assortment of Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams and their would-be contemporary counterparts — who would have thought that the most artistically satisfying production of the season would be one consisting of songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart? Musical revues are usually about as challenging and rewarding as the latest Janet Evanovich best-seller.
But the first clue that “Ten Cents A Dance” at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (through Aug. 28) might be something extraordinary is that it is conceived and directed by John Doyle, who gave Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and “Company” such a jolt by having the singer-actors play the musical instruments on stage. It was something that Doyle had done in England out of financial need until he realized that necessity was indeed the mother of all invention.
I still can’t tell you why it made such a difference in Sondheim, or in “Ten Cents A Dance,” for that matter. But it does. Maybe it’s simply that taking all the bombast and schmaltz out of musical theater and investing the singers with something a little extra brings out a level of emotional honesty that cuts to the quick of the composers’ work.
In “Ten Cents,” though, you have to begin with Doyle’s conception. The musical begins with Malcolm Gets as Johnny (“Poor Johnny One Note”) coming down a spiral staircase, walking slowly over to a piano (which he plays magnificently) and after much trepidation begins singing “Blue Moon.” Five women, all playing a certain chorus girl named Miss Jones (“Have You Met Miss Jones?”), at various stages of their romance, start their procession down the same staircase and take their place onstage.
As the songs, or parts of songs, progress, from “Where Or When” and “My Funny Valentine” to “He Was Too Good To Me” and “Quiet Night,” it’s obvious that Johnny and Miss Jones had incredible peaks and valleys. It’s also even more plain that Rodgers and Hart exercised a completely different genius than Rodgers and Hammerstein, a jazzier and sexier mindset, with the romantic stakes being higher, those peaks and valleys almost unbearable. Hart, who had to spend his life in the closet and died at 48, knew heartbreak all too well in his personal life.
But Johnny isn’t Hart. The five women are impeccable singers and actors — what chops they lack as instrumentalists are insignificant. Their best moments are smoldering ensemble numbers like “Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered” and “The Lady Is A Tramp,” their passion for Johnny knowing few bounds.
Still, for all their pretty singing, the revelation here is Gets, who has the presence and acting chops of Jon Hamm in “Mad Men” and the silky voice of Mel Torme. Put them together and you get someone akin to a kinder and gentler Sinatra of “Only The Lonely” and “In The Wee Small Hours.” In his hands, and voice, these songs feel like they were written yesterday. An artist has the ability to make time stand still and Gets — forget Connick or Buble — can leave you thinking “I Didn’t Know What Time It Is.” That artistry extends to his acting.
Doyle’s direction of the piece is also about the creative process, Johnny alternately summoning and banishing Miss Jones with his piano playing and his angry or determined pacing around the stage, his touching or tortured reminiscences bringing back memories both ecstatic and perhaps tragic.
If you’re lucky, you see something once a year that makes you realize that theater can reach a level of transcendence that television and movies, no matter how good, can’t touch. Doyle’s “Ten Cents a Dance” is that kind of musical masterpiece.
Elsewhere this summer:
In the Northern Berkshires, Shakespeare & Company has a summer schedule filled with crowd-pleasers, starting with the excellent “As You Like It” and the disappointing “Romeo and Juliet.” Also on the plus side, Tina Packer gives the Republican Party hell in the enjoyable if predictable “The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.” And if a previous production in Lenox is any indication, slapstick fans will enjoy “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” The company’s contemporary production, “The Memory of Water,” seems like Dysfunctional Theater Family 101 (through Sept. 4).
The Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater and artistic director Jeff Zinn have parted ways. Zinn made WHAT the place to go for serious theatergoers on the Cape, pushing the envelope in such a smart way that I never begrudged the company its failures (like the current over-the-top “Betrothed.”) The board says it will maintain that cutting-edge sensibility, but given Zinn’s problems with the board’s prior demands for more conventional plays we’ll have to wait and see.
The Cape’s mainstage theater on Route 6 — perhaps more of a curse than a blessing to the company’s mission — is currently staging the rolling world premiere of “Bakersfield Mist,” which Zinn will also be directing at Watertown’s New Repertory Theatre this coming season. New Rep is also looking for a new artistic director. Perhaps Wellfleet’s loss can be Watertown’s gain? (“Betrothed” and “Bakersfield Mist” play through Sept. 3 and 4; “Boeing Boeing” through Aug. 31.)
Remains to be seen:
The Barrrington Stage Company and Gloucester Stage Company are reviving “The Game,” a musical version of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” and “Fighting Over Beverley,” a play by Gloucester Stage founder Israel Horovitz. I wasn’t wowed by either when I saw earlier incarnations at the two theaters, though both had several good things to write home about. Perhaps they can both introduce more of a wow factor into the new productions. Gloucester Stage is finishing up “Trying” on Aug. 21, a repeat production centering on former Roosevelt Attorney General Francis Biddle during his final years. The Gloucester website says it met with universal critical appeal when it ran last year. I would say that’s no longer accurate. Crusty old man and idealistic young woman: been there, done that too many times before.
David Auburn (“Proof”) is directing Tennessee Williams’s “Period of Adjustment” through Sept. 3 at the Berkshire Theatre Festival and the Chester Theatre Company presents “Wittenberg” through Aug. 28.
And if you side with Stephen Sondheim in his war with Diane Paulus over the changes she’s making to “Porgy & Bess,” you can see the original “Porgy” back-to-back with the American Repertory Theater’s. Paulus’ “Porgy & Bess” is in previews for an Aug. 31 opening, but Tanglewood is presenting the original score in concert Aug. 26.
What do I think? I think critics shouldn’t prejudge. See you in September.