When it’s right, when the music and dance and vibe all come together in just the right way, a musical theater song and dance number can be a masterpiece, a moment that transports an audience and sends them out of the theater on a high.
But when a show closes, the magical number goes with it. And, even a revival rarely if ever resurrects the original choreography.
That issue was the driving force behind the American Dance Machine, a dance repertory company founded in 1976 as a “living archive” of musical theater classics.
That original company was gone by the 1990s after the death of founder Lee Theodore. But now, the American Dance Machine and its mission to resurrect and celebrate great musical theater numbers are experiencing a rebirth thanks to Nikki Feirt Atkins, who performed with the original company.
The group, now performing as American Dance Machine for the 21stCentury, is performing at New York City’s Joyce Theater through Sunday November 16. Future performances are in the works as well for those who can’t get to the Joyce in time.
For Atkins, who is working with choreographer Margo Sappington (who is listed as director for the Joyce season), reviving the American Dance Machine is a labor of love.
“There’s a real treasure trove of material out there, numbers that were showstoppers, that were just magical,” Atkins said. “I’m just so happy to be able to bring some of these numbers back and share them with a new generation. In some cases you’re seeing a style of dance that you just don’t see on Broadway anymore.”
Atkins said one of the biggest challenges she’s encountered since she began the project two years ago has been finding the right mix of dances, stagers who remembered the material, and performers. Securing legal permissions to restore some pieces also proved a challenge, she said, pointing out that the company was unable to present any pieces by the late Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse.
But the Joyce performances do include a healthy treasure trove of pieces—including two by Michael Bennett, two by Jerome Robbins, and two by Jack Cole.
The performances were presented as a repertory concert with simple, basic costumes (plus a few iconic costume pieces here and there) and no sets except for simple props (steps, platforms, tables). (But the Joyce performances do feature live music thanks to a top-notch six-piece ensemble).
The results overall were uneven but quite frequently riveting and certainly promising in terms of the potential of this company. In some cases, the numbers suffered from being presented out of context. Musical numbers, after all, are usually part of the dramatic arc of a show and the emotions generated emanate from what has happened before as well as the promise of what is to happen afterwards. In other cases, the unevenness of the ensemble cobbled together for this season, revealed itself.
Rare is the dancer who can be a perfect dance chameleon, fitting seamlessly into any and every style. Even for those who are triple threats—singers, dancers and actors—there is still a difference between being capable and having the type of star quality many of these pieces required.
There were, to be certain, plenty of star-quality performances from Broadway and ballet stars recruited for the Joyce run. They included a trio of stars from the New York City Ballet, plus Broadway veterans —a sizzling Jessica Lee Goldyn in “Music and the Mirror” from “A Chorus Line,” Amra-Faye Wright who dazzled in “City Lights” from “The Act,” and the always dynamic Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards who led the tap ensemble in “That Rhythm Man” from “Black and Blue.” Ironically, a number she originally performed in the original cast of that show when she was a kid.
But while some of the ensemble numbers rose to the occasion, such as “Popularity” from “George M!” led by a spectacular Peter Chursin, and a terrifically buoyant “Charleston” from “Billion Dollar Baby,” many of the ensemble pieces fell flat, lacking in charisma, vocal chops and the type of zing that transports a number from ordinary to exquisite.
Still, there is much to rejoice in here and the potential for this enterprise is certainly promising. The Joyce has already booked this new American Dance Machine for a return engagement next season and Feirt says other entities have also expressed interest in booking the company. Those are great signs of faith for a noteworthy and deserving project that gives the art of the Broadway musical number its due.
—Karyn D. Collins