JEFFRY DENMAN'S new musical, "Dancing in the Dark," is a delight. It is filled with charm, feeling, humor and tap dancing, lots of percussive tap dancing so good it makes you wish it wouldn't stop. It is at a point in this excellent production by Summerfare Musical Theatre that whatever may be slightly wrong is carried on the back of everything that is very good, and the wrong stuff likely is nothing more than a few minor fixes. Nothing at all is wrong with the dancing.
The dancing is what moves it, and more of it wouldn't do any harm. Denman has written a fairly complicated book, let's call it a script to indicate it's more than an instruction booklet, that puts dancing not only at the center of the performance but the center of the subject matter. He imagines a hot young choreographer on Broadway who rakes in the Tony Awards then inexplicably lapsing into a long, long fallow period. He's hit with the dancing equivalent of writer's block.
The story puts back in New York, back in a rehearsal studio where he figures to put several numbers together to present to the producers of a new musical show. Behind this is his former girl friend, Penny Morris, who is linked to one of the producers. The estimable John Fredo plays Atwell in this funk and Erika Insana is Penny, his secret patron.
Connected to the studio are dancers -- Kathy Weese, Anne Nicole Biancofiore, William B. Hubert II, Lynn Scott -- and an arranger, played by Doug Weyand, and a noisy pudding of a landlord named Mort, played by Norm Sham Jr.
The time is approximately today. In the half-darkness of the studio someone fires up some tap steps and before long Fred Astaire walks in. Fred Astaire? Here is Denman's inspiration, the spirit of the great Fred Astaire. Here is where the show is coming from. Denman is a dancer who has racked up some significant roles in New York musicals. He is tall, extremely lean, he has a long, somewhat bony face (maybe it's just being thin), an open honest smile, and all in all, with his grace, the way he moves in half dark, you might take him for the man himself, Astaire.
To connect Astaire to the show Denman imagines the same studio many years ago, starting in the 1920s, when the landlord is Mort's dad, Jack, and when Astaire rents it to practice before putting his talent on the block by going to Hollywood. Denman fits in all sorts of parallels between Astaire's shaky confidence over the Hollywood move and Atwell's slump. The two worlds, Atwell's and Astaire's, exist sort of side by side, or in and out, in this same identical studio separated by 60 years or so, and actually overlap in the persons of Astaire and Atwell. Atwell "sees" Astaire, and they test working together. Astaire's career is history, so it is Atwell who is the main beneficiary of this working relationship.
I count nine musical numbers in the show, 10 if you add in a repeat, and all but a couple are dance numbers. Denman of course has choreographed the show, with some assistance from Biancofiore. Randall Kramer, who runs Summerfare, has directed. Donald Jenczka is the musical director. Patrick Jaromin and Sandra Walter designed it and Chris Cavanagh lighted it.
It might not be true to say this is the best show Summerfare has ever done, but you could go so far as to say it is the one loaded with the most promise. Everything about it suggests this may very well be the direction Summerfare ought to be taking, adopting new non-stale musicals and working them from the ground up.
Of the nine musical numbers, exactly two-thirds are by company people, mostly by Jenczka or by Jenczka and Denman, and one notably rousing dance number near the end by Daniel S. Acquisto, the percussionist in the show's music group (Michael G. Hake on keyboards, Jim Runfola on reeds, Jenczka on piano and Acquisto).
Then Denman is in from New York for this, a couple of the other performers are setting up commuting plans to work with when feasible. Other first-rate musical performers, Fredo, Sham, Weese, Weyand, are regulars with Summerfare and live and work here.
My impression is this may be Kramer's best direction, purely in terms of good theater. What this suggests in turn is that despite some weaknesses in the script, it has sufficient substance for a director to work with, relieving him of the responsibility for hiding the script behind inflated production numbers. Because dancing is so much inside the script itself -- rather like Michael Bennett's "Chorus Line" -- you don't have to push the pause button to make room for an extraneous dance or song number.
With the definite help of Jaromin and Walter's set, he has has solved the dreariness of the Pfeifer stage. The empty stage at the Pfeifer feels like a sub-space of some kind, I have no idea why, but it does. Nearly every director is defeated by it in one way or another. Jaromin and Walter's set is only one of a handful to ever have solved this problem, and in doing so suggest how it might be permanently fixed. Basically they have built a raised stage on the depressed stage, about two feet higher, and they have squared it off in a rectangle across the audience's view. It makes all the difference. It's really a triumph of design.
Denman and Fredo occupy the center of the show. Performances by others are rewarding and supportive, for instance, Sham's grouchy-funny landlord, Insana's beautiful and touching affection for Atwell, but the show for the most part belongs to Denman and Fredo. It would seem with someone as singular as Astaire it would be impossible to step into his dancing shoes, but Denman does a creditable, and winning job of it. Fredo is a looser, sort of street-tougher dancer. Together they are wonderful. Their competition is the presentation piece choreographed by Denman for Weese, Hubert, Scott and Biancofiore to Acquisto's music. It's dynamite.
The future of "Dancing in the Dark" is likely to be as a very entertaining chamber musical. With enough fine-tuning prospects ought to be reasonably rosy. If Denman's script is anything to go by, no matter what happens he'll be happy. It's a show he had to get out of his system.
It also sends a signal that all the right elements are in place for Summerfare to break new ground with musicals pieces. The thing might be for Denman, Kramer, Jenczka, et al., to start right in on another collaboration.
Dancing in the Dark
Rating:**** New musical by Jeffry Denman. Directed by Randall Kramer for Summerfare Musical Theatre, and featuring Denman, John Fredo, Norm Sham, Anne Bian cofiore, Erika Insana and others. Performances continue Fri. at 8, Sat. at 4:30 and 8, and Sun. at 3, through Nov. 23. Pfeifer The atre, 681 Main St. (839-8540).