Broadway Review: Chaplin

Rob McClure as Charlie Chaplin on Broadway

Rob McClure as Charlie Chaplin
Photo © 2012 Joan Marcus

Theater poster: Chaplin

Chaplin

Music & Lyrics by Christopher Curtis
Book by Christopher Curtis & Thomas Meehan
Directed & Choreographed by Warren Carlyle

Location: Barrymore Theatre 243 West 47th Street, New York, NY 10036

Set Designer: Beowulf Boritt, Lighting: Ken Billington, Costumes: Amy Clark, Martin Pakledinaz, Sound Design: Scott Lehrer, Drew Levy

Starring Robert McClure, Michael McCormick, Jim Borstelmann, Jenn Colella, Erin Mackey, Michael McCormick, Christiane Noll, Zachary Unger, Wayne Alan Wilcox, Emilee Dupré

CLR [rating:2.5]

Hollywood Shuffle

More than any other entertainer, Charlie Chaplin’s name and image are synonymous with the wordless communication of emotion, character, even physics. The idea of the quintessential silent movie star suddenly bursting into song seems awkward to say the least, so the very title of a show called Chaplin the Musical sounds like a contradiction in terms. It is possible, of course, to fashion a good musical out of almost any subject matter, and certainly there was enough drama in Chaplin’s life to provide some good plot material. Ultimately though, co-creators Christopher Curtis and Thomas Meehan fall short of justifying the musicalization of their subject.

The song list features the usual assortment: a “want song” an “11 O’clock song” et cetera. It’s not a bad score in and of itself. But, with few exceptions, the songs feel arbitrary, with numbers shoehorned into what would otherwise be an intriguing straight-play treatment of the topic This is unfortunate, as there is much to admire in this production. Its black-and-white design concept is adroitly executed, and its script offers a fresh, irreverent take on Chaplin’s famed personal, professional and political entanglements.

Opening with a critical moment in the life of adult Chaplin (Rob McClure), the story then drifts back in time to 19th Century London. Here, Hannah Chaplin (Christiane Noll) encourages her little son (Zachary Unger) to look closely at the life that surrounds him. Keenly observant, the lad watches the mannerisms of passersby, storing images that will surface later in his film work.

He takes a more active role when Hannah, a headliner on the music hall circuit, suffers a memory lapse on stage. Charles finishes the Cockney drinking song ‘What’cha Gonna Do?”(the show’s memorable number) and the crowd eats it up. The kid’s show business career has begun. Trouble soon follows, though, as Hannah’s deteriorating health lands her in a mental hospital. Deadbeat Charles Senior (Michael McCormick) is of no help, so Charlie’s older half-brother Sydney (Wayne Alan Wilcox) steps in to become the family’s chief provider. Syd’s employer, comedy impresario Fred Karno (William Ryall) eventually takes Charlie on as well. The young comedian catches the attention of film producer Mack Sennett, and Charlie is off to Hollywood.

In one of the few numbers that succeed in moving the story forward, Sennett gradually reaches the end of his fuse as the theater-trained Chaplin fails to get the hang of movie buffoonery. Threatened with termination, Charlie thinks fast, and the Little Tramp is soon born.

Fame follows and Charlie sends for Syd, who negotiates for more money and greater control. Charlie is soon directing, producing, even building his own studio. With his newfound artistic freedom, Chaplin adds autobiographical touches to his films. In The Kid, the Tramp is separated from his adopted son, creating a tableau that echoes Charlie’s own devastating severance from Hannah. Director Warren Carlyle seems to despair of the audience making such connections on its own, and scenes from Chaplin’s past are often reenacted in swirling vignettes to show where he gets his ideas.

Far more involving are the scenes that deal concretely with the filmmaking process and the impact Chaplin’s uncompromising drive has on the people around him. He torments child star Jackie Coogan (Unger) in order to obtain a perfect shot of the child in tears, then rushes to embrace him once the footage is captured. Do the ends justify the means? Charlie’s first wife Mildred Harris (Hayley Podsschun) doesn’t think so. The Kid secures Chaplin’s reputation as an auteur, but his workaholism leaves Mildred feeling neglected and wanting out. She will not be the last.

The pace picks up in the second act, which opens with Chaplin’s string of failed marriages presented as a slapstick boxing match. Mildred Harris, Lita Grey and Paulette Goddard all give Charlie a beating in divorce proceedings. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Jenn Colella) serves as a ringside announcer, clearly relishing the Tramp’s defeats. Things worsen when Hopper requests an interview and is snubbed by Chaplin. This, combined with her distaste for Charlie’s liberal politics, puts Hedda on the warpath. “Wat’cha Gonna Do?” is reprised, quite effectively, as an anthem of sadism as Hopper goes gunning for her target. Colella makes an apt villainess, hurling herself about the stage with a Nationalistic zeal and predatory satisfaction.

While trouble brews, Chaplin transitions to the sound era with hits like the antifascist satire The Great Dictator and finally attains stability with his fourth wife Oona O’Neill (Erin Mackey).

Rob McClure as Charlie Chaplin and Erin Mackey as Oona O’Neill in Chaplin

Rob McClure (Charlie Chaplin) and Erin Mackey (Oona O’Neill)
Photo © 2012 Joan Marcus

His happiness is threatened, however, when Hopper joins forces with the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee. A specious paternity suit brought by unstable actress Joan Barry (Emilee Dupré) proves one scandal too many, and Chaplin finds himself persona non grata in Hollywood. On a trip overseas, he is informed that the State Department has denied him an access visa. He does not set foot on American soil again until 1972, when he accepts a special Oscar awarded by a contrite Motion Picture Academy.

All in all, the show is most remarkable for its performances, especially the lead. McClure nimbly captures both Chaplin’s physicality and the contradictory aspects of his personality. He is as cantankerous as he is vulnerable, uncompromising in his pursuit of his own vision even as he aches for approval. Years from now, if Chaplin is remembered, it will be as his Broadway debut.

How Social Media Has Energized Small Arts Organizations — An Interview with Diablo Ballet’s Dan Meagher

Diablo Ballet’s "A Swingin’ Holiday" (chor. Sean Kelly, music by Ellington, Cole, Marsalis, and Tchaikovsky) (l/r) Edward Stegge, Rosselyn Ramirez & David Fonnegra. Photo by Ashraf.

Award-winning Diablo Ballet Director of Marketing Dan Meagher has been both administration and talent. With his strong background in theatrical marketing and as a performer in national productions like Titanic and The Sound of Music, Meagher is aware that for the performing arts to survive, companies must attract new fans, even while maintaining existing audiences. And one way to do this is through the creative use of social media.

For small performing arts companies like Diablo Ballet, social media has come into the forefront as a cost-effective vehicle to get audiences involved in the arts in a new and interactive way. In the past, marketing personnel for arts organizations had to navigate the expensive ad formats in print, television, and radio to get their message out. Often, local media would donate print space or airtime as part of their public service commitments, but this tended to be an unpredictable delivery method, dependent on too many variables, including space availability and the personal commitment of individual station managers.

What social media offers, besides a low cost of delivery, is an opportunity for arts managers to control what and how their message is distributed. It also allows for something new — true interactivity.

In the three years since he has been at Diablo Ballet, Dan Meagher has used all the traditional marketing and public relations techniques to build public awareness of the company. However, in January 2012, he accelerated the company’s use of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, to engage the dance community and audience in a fresh and contemporary way. This summer, Meagher began using social media’s latest thing — Pinterest.

Last season, via Twitter and Facebook, he put out a call for volunteer tweeters to live “broadcast” during the spring performances of Inside the Dancer’s Studio. These citizen critics, who were not dancers or dance writers, posted their immediate impressions, likes, and dislikes, and created quite a stir.

California Literary Review: Can you tell our readers a bit about your background?

Dan Meagher: I started working in TV and radio when I was twelve and had my own NPR radio show in San Francisco; I continued in San Francisco TV and radio for years. Then, in the early 1990s, I had the unexpected chance to work in professional theatre. I played in musical theater for quite awhile, working in such places as Hampton Beach, New Hampshire, and Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. After all this performing, I decided to continue my education at Oklahoma City University — home of a fantastic musical theater program. It was there that I returned to marketing as part of the university’s national summer music program. In 2008, I returned home to San Francisco and have been marketing for arts companies ever since.

I love marketing for the arts because it’s such an uphill battle — a real challenge. At least 99% of arts companies have no real marketing budget, so you have to be creative and always thinking. You have to be willing to go out on a limb and try something new (like tweeting from a dance performance). It’s that kind of freedom I enjoy. I am also fortunate to have a boss who is as crazy as me, and who let’s me try new things!

This year, Diablo Ballet has had a much higher profile than in past years, and social media has played a major part. Is this area of public relations and marketing new for you, or have you played in this particular sandbox before?

Thanks so much. I’m thrilled that you’ve seen a change in exposure. I’ve been working at Diablo Ballet for three years, and we’ve just started to hit our stride. It’s a process that takes time. You can’t just walk into an organization, start a marketing program, and a week later, have a thousand followers on Twitter.

Getting Diablo Ballet’s name out is always in the forefront of my goals. My marketing programs don’t cost thousands of dollars. We’re very grass roots so it takes creativity and a willingness to experiment. It also takes a staff willing to put in the time to do the job. They have to be more than “idea” people — those all-talk-and-no-action types. We’re too lean an organization for that. As for me, I work six days a week and love it.

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Spines, Wines and Dragonflies: Groovin’ in Stern Grove with the San Francisco Ballet

San Francisco Ballet Stern Grove - Scotch Symphony

San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony.
© Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet’s first performance at the natural yet sumptuous Stern Grove outdoor venue took place on August 22, 1943. From that day to this, the 75th anniversary of the Stern Grove Festival, planning to see the dancers has been an adventure, filled with anticipation, trepidation, and even foreboding. One can never be sure that they will dance, because if the temperature plummets to 55 degrees or below, provisions in their union contract assure that they will not.

July 29th was one of those pilgrimage days when an estimated 10,000 balletomanes, ballet students, ex-dancers, and other Stern Grove-goers, brought layers of clothing, friends, companions and newborns, along with picnic baskets filled with assorted pièces de resistance to the festival grounds. Part of the ritual conversation is to recall chilly summers when the concert was almost called off, and one when it actually was. Happily for SFB devotees, the show did go on, and between bites of fried chicken, eggplant parmesan sandwiches, thickly (blue-)frosted chocolate cupcakes, premier Pt. Reyes cheeses, and wedges of tomato spice cake, all washed down with whites or reds, courtesy of a Stern Grove supply line, we commented on how great the dancers look this season, especially the corps de ballet with its several newer members now fully in harness.

Since it is an outdoor theater, there is no curtain, but the corps’s entrance in George Balanchine’s Scotch Symphony was tantamount to a rising curtain. Among them, Madison Keesler, Koto Ishihara, and the very present Charlene Cohen, torsos lifted, arms held in a generous second position, offered a cordial, yet formal welcome. Cohen has an uncanny ability to remain completely focused at the same time as her steps go adeptly outward bound. In this setting, the men’s Celtic costumes, with their carmine red velvet tops and green plaid kilts, created a woodsy and fraternal hunting lodge sense of place. They might have seemed overbuilt for a summer performance, were it not a San Francisco summer, and up until the last minute, audience members were consulting their hand-helds to check whether the temperature had indeed dipped into the 55-degree no-dance zone. Climate change was forgotten in short order, as the men fell into crisp formation, setting the stage for the trio of Nicole Ciapponi, Myles Thatcher and Steven Morse, whose work lifts Balanchine’s best intentions into sharp relief. Ciapponi has a sense of herself that is fired by confident, lively dispatch shown in her downstage brisés. The three kick up a jaunty tempo, a perfect prelude to the pas de deux by Davit Karapetyan and Yuan Yuan Tan.

Tan’s costume with its pink top and long white tulle skirt blend into the deeper color scheme better in natural light than they did indoors last season. Tan’s slow, deliberate, and generous développés are acknowledged gallantly by Karapetyan. Her head and neck elongate wistfully, as she glances back over a shoulder, and there is both delicacy and purposefulness to her work. Karapetyan is fully ceremonial and masterly in his partnering of Tan, where no detail is too incidental to overlook. Tan’s retreat—backward steps with a winning épaulement—brings closure to the duet. Both dancers sustain the loftiest level of performance quality throughout.

San Francisco Ballet Stern Grove - Spinae

SF Ballet Apprentices Emma Rubinowitz and Alexander Reneff-Olson in Thatcher’s Spinae.
© Erik Tomasson

The after-show comments were all about the afternoon’s brightest work, corps de ballet member Myles Thatcher’s Spinae. It was set on and performed by the San Francisco Ballet Trainees and company apprentices, who show a promise that is bittersweet, in that it far exceeds the Grinchy number of contracts that dance companies are currently offering. Wearing raspberry watercolor unitards from Saut de Basque Dancewear, the dancers lean forward facing the audience, with eyes searing through the fourth wall to make contact, and then in twos or fours that become threes and then fours again, to insistent strumming from a Dream House and Ethel score, they find and show nearly everything that can be done with a spine. The thing about Thatcher’s work (and I’ve now had the privilege of seeing three of his pieces), is that his intellect is ever-present, cradled in the kinesthetic, such that the movement sends our heads on a little journey around the spine: See how the men lift the women so they are able to face out and send a dolphin bobble through air instead of water? See how the coryphée is a woman leading a mixed-sex cannon, and how a woman brings up the rear of a flock of dancers? It’s a statement without being an overstatement, or for that matter, a distraction from how the piece takes shape. Then Thatcher has us take a peek at what the spine does to take up the torque in a dehors arabesque turn. A quick toe-touch before an extension commands attention as a pointer would. Sweeping or skater glides suddenly brake, a foot is planted, as a pliant torso circles above it. See? Using the spine, we can have both stasis and motion simultaneously. Some of the steps about two thirds along do not work with the music, but overall, the piece invents a magical conveyance for a tour of the body in motion. We come away with a more complete appreciation of what this fragile yet forceful contraption called a spine can send out into the world.

San Francisco Ballet Stern Grove - Solo

Hansuke Yamamoto in van Manen’s Solo.
© Erik Tomasson

Hans van Manen’s Solo is not for everybody, and by that, I don’t mean everyone in the audience. I mean that it’s not for every dancer. It is a musically challenging piece set to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Suite No. 1 in D minor, “Correnta” and “Double,” a score that skids along quickly and erratically, never seeming to stop, even as the choreography shifts radically from one direction or level to another. The title “Solo” notwithstanding, it is actually performed by three dancers: Gennadi Nedvigin, James Sofranko and Hansuke Yamamoto, all past masters at the technical hi-jinx that are essential to its success. For example, Nedvigin falls to the floor like a feather, never losing ground in his timing; Yamamoto engages in a battle with the air in something akin to a sped-up Sleeping Beauty Violante (Finger Fairy) variation; and Sofranko glides in all directions, rooting the steps in the accelerating tempo. Nedvigin’s artistry always arrives when you think he has just completely nailed a combination, and then he adds a most subtle and offhanded flourish, such as a shoulder shrug with palms upturned, punctuated with a devilish smile.

San Francisco Ballet Stern Grove - Number Nine

Frances Chung and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira in Wheeldon’s Number Nine.
© Erik Tomasson

At my picnic table, the most controversial piece was the program’s closer, Christopher Wheeldon’s Number Nine. One tablemate, remarking on the yellow costumes that “look like highlighters,” offered the opinion that Wheeldon should have “stopped at Number Two.” Others, including myself, were delighted by the addition of Sasha de Sola to the cast as the female half of the couple in purple. She brought a frothy, playful, but at times, spitfire quality to the duet with Vito Mazzeo. For me, Frances Chung and Daniel Deivison, as the couple in orange, delivered the most virtuosic performance, with lifts and counterpoint that in their athleticism seemed to channel something Olympic. The fanning of dancers on the floor, facing the audience like human footlights, was a touch of class that transported me from Grove to groove, as a blue dragonfly made a spectacular landing a leaf or two stage left of center.

Broadway Review: Nice Work If You Can Get It

Theater poster: Nice Work If You Can Get It

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Music by George Gershwin
Lyrics by Ira Gershwin
Book by Joe DiPietro
Directed by Kathleen Marshall

Location: Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St., New York, NY

Set Designer: Derek McLane, Lighting: Peter Kaczorowski, Costumes: Martin Pakledinaz, Sound Design: Brian Ronan

Starring Matthew Broderick, Kelli O’Hara, Terry Beaver, Robyn Hurder, Judy Kaye, Stanley Wayne Mathis, Michael McGrath, Estelle Parsons, Chris Sullivan, Jennifer Laura Thompson

CLR [rating:4.0]

Still: Nice Work If You Can Get It on Broadway

Kelli O’Hara as Billie Bendix and Matthew Broderick as Jimmy Winter in
Nice Work If You Can Get It.

Photo © 2012 Joan Marcus

S’wonderful

Recent years have seen an increase in an odd Broadway genre: new musicals that don’t include any new music. Ranging from cynically packaged jukebox entries to respectful retrospectives like Sondheim on Sondheim, the form has myriad possibilities. Whether a show merits its ticket price, though, depends on the imagination and craftsmanship of its creators. New York audiences, quick to dismiss anything that smacks of tourist bait, are rightly skeptical when billboards appear showing yet another roster of beloved songs performed by yet another star-studded cast. The good news about Nice Work if You Can Get It, which has already gathered numerous award nominations including 10 Tony nods, is that it doesn’t rely on its obvious selling points. Yes, Broadway luminary Mathew Broderick delivers his customary comic aplomb. And yes, George Gershwin’s iconic melodies and Ira Gershwin’s lyrics are so flawlessly constructed they could pretty much work in any context. But it’s the less-foolproof elements — a colorful and committed supporting cast, Joe DiPietro’s buoyant book, and Bill Elliot’s well-balanced orchestrations — that give the show its remarkable sparkle and sustain its momentum over the course of two acts and 20 songs.

Derived from the quintessentially 1920’s comedies of P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, the show’s screwball plot hinges on the impossible task of dragging Jimmy Winter (Broderick) into adulthood. Hoping to attain respectability and inherit his family’s business, Jimmy has chosen a bride, the esoteric modern dance pioneer Eileen Evergreen (Jennifer Laura Thompson). The problem, of course, is that responsible behavior is simply not in Jimmy’s DNA. Wealthy since birth, he is untouched by the real world and has no superego to curb his unquenchable appetite for jazz, girls, and bootleg liquor. Jimmy’s commitment-phobia is further exacerbated when he happens upon bootlegger Billie Bendix (Kelli O’Hara). The two share an instant chemistry, but Billie’s too savvy to let anything interfere with business. As it happens, though, Billie’s partners in crime Cookie McGee (Michael McGrath) and Duke Mahoney (Chris Sullivan) see Jimmy as a perfect mark. They hope to evade the long arm of the law by stowing a boatload of gin in the basement of the Winter family mansion on Long Island. To complete the ruse, the crooks (ineptly of course) pose as household help while Billie, more comfortable in suspenders than a dress, tries to use her feminine wiles to distract Jimmy.

Further complications ensue with the arrival of Eileen’s father, right wing Senator Max Evergreen (Terry Beaver) and her temperance-advocating aunt Duchess Estonia Dulworth (Judy Kaye). Even the lumbering Duke finds himself in hot water as his flapper sweetheart Jeannie Muldoon (Robyn Hurder) grows disgruntled when she finds out he not really a royal. Attempts at restoring order are made by the overzealous Chief Berry (Stanley Wayne Mathis), but his visits usually prove more intrusive than helpful. Like dominos, one disaster begets another until all hope seems lost for our protagonists. But Jimmy’s always had one trump card up his sleeve: his mother. Loose threads are woven into a perversely happy ending as Millicent Winter (Estelle Parsons) arrives with an arsenal of bombshell revelations.

Predictably, the score features plenty of Gershwin standards like “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Lady Be Good,” and it’s refreshing to hear these perennial favorites in a straightforward lyrics-driven rendition. But DiPietro and director Kathleen Marshall have also unearthed a few lesser-known treasures from the Gershwin catalogue. The frothy “Delishious” becomes a paean to self-admiration as Eileen bathes and primps in preparation for her grand entrance. The classical music sendup “By Strauss” forms an apt counterpoint to the bluesy “Sweet and Lowdown” as Estonia and Cookie argue for their respective musical tastes. For the most part, the numbers feel organic to the story, and even on the few occasions where they seem a bit shoehorned, comic possibilities are exploited to great effect. “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” a song designed for a couple who can’t even agree on their differences, seems somewhat premature for Jimmy and Billie who have only recently met. But with the addition of Chief Berry’s klutzily sincere attempt to mediate between the two lovers, the song takes on new life and Mathis gets an opportunity to showcase his comedic skills.

There are many such touches in the show, and its creators are wise not to depend too heavily on the rather simplistic character of Jimmy to drive the action. He functions more as catalyst than a hero, and it’s the world that swirls around him that provides most of the fun. Make no mistake though, knowing what to leave out of a performance is a skill acquired only with years of experience. Broderick gives a generous performance, turning on his patented man-child charm when called upon, but also stepping back and allowing his leading lady and sidemen plenty of space to maneuver. O’Hara makes an apt foil for him, as her persona, even in upbeat scenes, always carries an undertone of fragility. Her take on the wistful ballads “But Not For Me” and “Someone To Watch Over Me” give the evening just enough pathos to counterbalance the comedy. Marshall and associate choreographer David Egger put a modern spin on the popular dances of the prohibition era, and blend dance with physical comedy to great effect. Derek McLane’s opulent sets, Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes and Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting design combine to give the show the look of a J.C. Leyendecker illustration come to life.

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Nice Work If You Can Get It Montage

Don Quixote, San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House, April 27, 2012

Clara Blanco in Don Quixote

Clara Blanco in Tomasson/Possokhov’s Don Quixote.
© Erik Tomasson

Let the ballet snobs pound sand in the corrida if they find neither rhyme, reason, nor much musical innovation in Don Quixote: It is still that sampler of delicacies which, done right, can end the dance season on a crescendo, and on April 27, San Francisco Ballet surpassed all expectations! The fun begins when your companion of the evening points out querulously that there is a horse trailer parked at the stage door. You explain, “For the donkey.”

The ballet opens in Don Quixote’s heavily layered study, a heap of hubris. It is here that the title character conflates a mission that rattles alongside his drawn saber, an unwieldy accompaniment to the love story of Basilio (Joan Boada), the barber of Seville (though the program locates the action in Barcelona), and his beloved village bombshell, Kitri (Vanessa Zahorian). Kitri is the daughter of Lorenzo (Ricardo Bustamante). Lorenzo hopes in vain that she will marry Gamache (Myles Thatcher). Basilio is a scamp of a fellow whose sap is on the rise. Lorenzo is part of a delusional foursome, and we can’t help but be put in mind of its modern-day equivalent, the railbirds we’ve seen recently in the TV series Luck. Here the foursome consists of Don Quixote (Jim Sohm) himself, who believes in the chivalric power of his own sword, his quisling sidekick, Sancho Panza (Pascal Molat), whose delusions issue from the bottle he secrets in his knapsack, Lorenzo, wearily invested in the self-righteous prerogatives of patriarchal honor, and finally, the unsuitable suitor Gamache, who trips all over his own effete repertoire of affectations, including a few that involve mounting and dismounting the aforementioned burro. They are all going nowhere fast, albeit furiously.

As Kitri, Vanessa Zahorian channels brisk opening-night energy into casting fiery downward glances while demarcating her turf with a pointed foot. Confidence washes over every lift that ends in a one hundred and eighty-degree developpé, and the pirouettes she smilingly pulls out along a diagonal of attendant toreadors. Joan Boada as Basilio brings a peppy hair-toss of boyishness to the role, which he long ago stamped as his own during his student days in Havana, where he was admired by his peers for a facile, crowd-pleasing delivery. Subtlety arrives with the comic manipulations in the Town Square scene. Lorenzo wrenches Kitri from one of the many clinches she shares with Basilio, only to have Basilio sidle up to her best friend (Dores André), so as not to lose a moment of momentum in astonishing himself with his own charm, whereupon Gamache stumbles in, taking the opportunity to insinuate himself into the three-way traffic jam as an unwelcome fourth. The timing is impeccable, thanks to the eagle-eyed staging by Yuri Possokhov of Helgi Tomasson’s choreography.

Sarah Van Patten in Don Quixote<

Sarah Van Patten in Tomasson/Possokhov’s Don Quixote.
© Erik Tomasson

Sarah Van Patten’s five-alarm entrance as Mercedes, in a long blue dress with fuchsia ruffles, reminds us that we’re here to see virtuosic dancing. Her partner is Pierre François Villanoba as Espada, put in for an injured Ruben Martín Cintas, and though Villanoba is several years Van Patten’s senior, their sparks ignite some of the steamiest dancing of the evening. They generate even more heat in the Tavern scene (when he is in black and she is in midnight blue), as she swallows the stage whole in long lunges and gallops, legs crossing in landings that end in a jutted hip or a deep fold inward to the floor. She gives the “Spanish back” its ultimate workout. He announces himself the matador in every held pose and swirling turn, ending in feet drawn together in parallel. The bullfight energy is present in him, even if there is no bull, or at least not as much as some productions have brought to the stage.

The townspeople blindfold Sancho Panza and toss him up and down relentlessly on a held blanket. His absence of vision is a metaphor for the town and its foibles, but Molat is a prescient character actor, and brings inner vision to the role.

If the good citizens of Seville aka Barcelona suffer from temporary blindness, the libretto offers some relief in the Roma-inspired ingenuity we see in Act II’s full-moon-lit Gypsy Camp scene. Hansuke Yamamoto as the Gypsy Leader offers tour de force clean, fast, dramatic, and air-slicing character dancing that sets the bar high for the corps de ballet to emulate. Not to be outdone, Danielle Santos as the Gypsy Woman, counters with a solo that moves from a tremulous legato to her flying low across the stage on a diagonal and ending in a split on the floor downstage left. Kitri gives herself over to Basilio in a moonlight pas de deux. The leaderless ragtag cavalry of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, Lorenzo and Gamache arrives with the horse and donkey, the four fools who rush in where angels fear to tread. A puppet show distracts them as the lovers flee. The moon brightens, lightning strikes, and the windmill goes into full throttle, detonated by gypsy bravura.

In the Driads scene, Don Quixote loses what little consciousness he has, and a dream comes to him. In it, driads in absinthe tutus fill a landscape of greenery in a fantastic glade. Russet-haired Clara Blanco, a winged Cupid in a tutu of green tulle, moves downstage, shimmering with clarity and abundant hope. The audience recognizes her by her lightness, sweet smile, and applauds her entrance even before she has begun to work her magic on the quixotic don. Her light, bright, darting solo is an instruction to the corps de ballet behind her. They follow her lead, keeping arms raised and light throughout. The Queen of Driads, danced by Sofiane Sylve follows. One gets the sense that her body is not warm enough to caress the air with the épaulement required of the much-anticipated balloné-defined variation. As she moves into her chaîné and piqué turns, however, she gains heat, and ends her solo triumphantly. A confusing element is the return of Kitri, in a silvery tutu here, to dance yet again. This is overkill, and Zahorian seems to balk at the redundancy. Blanco returns with discretionary timing, adroit directional shifts, and jewel-like eyes foretelling where her feet will take her. A shallow assessment of Blanco might consign her to “short-girl” roles, even though she has worked assiduously over the years to lengthen her line, with the splendid results that she has turned into a short dancer who casts a long, authoritative, and memorable shadow. As with the gypsies, and the toreadors, the Driad sequence showcases the virtuosity of the women’s corps de ballet.

The final act Wedding scene benefits from the accumulated improvements in this year’s version, with the strongest corps de ballet in memory draped in sizzling colors, thoughtful, careful staging, and a cast that has eyes everywhere. When it is time for the famous grand pas and accompanying variations, fatigue doesn’t prevent Zahorian from pulling in from her 32 fouettés to bring us, doubles, triples, and was that a quadruple pirouette from á la seconde at the end? Her foot brushes the floor zestily as she brings it into grand battement. She and Boada are on every note of the Minkus score when he tosses her up lightly twice, catches her and swoops her into a fish dive before he delivers a perfect pitch men’s variation with a ménège so organic that we don’t even notice the preparation that alerts us, “One ménège coming up!”

While the entire audience stood applauding in adulation, this reviewer dashed out the door to tell it all to her computer.

***

San Francisco Ballet’s Don Quixote will run from April 27-May 6, at the War Memorial Opera House. Click here for more information.