Candlelight Dinner Playhouse

Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. It’s the classic formula–the same old song and dance. But not in Song and Dance, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s surprisingly witty and inventive show, now receiving a splendid staging at Candlelight Dinner Playhouse. Part song cycle and part jazz ballet, it’s a sort of Judy Garland-Gene Kelly musical for today. At least that’s how it comes off in the hands (and voice and feet) of Hollis Resnik and Danny Herman, whose dynamic lead performances invite comparison with the movie greats, though they don’t attempt to imitate them.

Resnik is a well-known Chicago quantity from such shows as Candlelight’s Evita and Into the Woods, Interplay’s Piaf, and the road-show Les Miserables at the Auditorium. A bravura belter, she’s also a nuanced artist; in the last decade her continued technical and emotional growth has been one of the great joys of Chicago theater.

Herman, on the other hand, is a brand-new face, at least onstage; a one-time protege of Michael Bennett, he’s been seen in the chorus of several shows–including the touring Song and Dance that came through town in 1987–but this is his first lead. He’s a real find–with his acrobatic athleticism, romantic grace, and sunny energy he’s a joy to watch. And he’s a multiple-threat artist; as director and choreographer of this production he’s concocted movement that’s not only exciting but psychologically revealing and narratively propulsive, in the best Jerome Robbins tradition.

This gifted image maker has a knack for working with individuals; every display of fleet footwork, every telling gesture and toss of the head has been shaped to reflect the personality of the performer. Resnik has never been better: under Herman’s guidance she’s found the best movements to convey her mercurial character’s emotional roller-coaster ride. Less complex supporting roles are equally well served: the choreography highlights diminutive dynamo Kenny Ingram’s cocky, campy ebullience, Andrew J. Lupp’s slightly gawky charm, Ann-Marie Rogers’s sweetness and strength, and Rudy Hogenmiller’s icy control; they’ve all got far more individuality than I’ve seen in their work before. It isn’t just the movement that makes Song and Dance so good–it’s the way the movement connects with the movers, and the way the movers connect with one another.

That sense of connection is critical, because it’s not inherent in Lloyd Webber’s risky approach to telling an overfamiliar story. His strategy is signaled in the title: the first half is song–and nothing but–while the second half is pure dance. In less sensitive hands this could make for a fatally unbalanced evening of theater, but the Candlelight company fills in crucial gaps to emphasize the “and” in Song and Dance.

Emma (Resnik) is a young Englishwoman who comes to America with her rock-star boyfriend. Dazzled by New York’s speed and glitter and anxious to pursue work as a fashion designer as soon as she can get her green card, Emma splits from him and winds up in the company of a hotshot young moviemaker who invites her to LA–where she ends up rotting in the sun (albeit poolside) waiting for him to take her calls. Fed up, she heads back to Manhattan and decides that happiness is just a thing called Joe, a hunk from Nebraska. But Joe proves unfaithful (as Emma is informed with vicious pleasure by a gossipy fellow Brit named Viv), and Emma turns her attention to her millinery career, opting for a futureless fling with a married man–until he offers to leave his family for her, forcing her to confront the way she’s walled off her emotions.

This tale of how the one who’s hurt becomes the hurter is relayed in a series of musical monologues in which Emma sings about, and sometimes to, invisible scene partners (her boyfriends, Viv, her mum). In a solo tour de force, Resnik makes each person she’s thinking of clear and distinct, giving a potentially trite story texture. Whether a song calls for her to be wryly funny (the ironically cutesy ode to LA living, “Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad”), achingly vulnerable (“Tell Me on a Sunday,” a bittersweet portrait of a person trying to control how an affair ends), or realistically self-understanding (“The Last Man in My Life,” a lovely jazz ballad cut from the show’s mid-1980s Broadway run and restored by Herman), Resnik gives life to each dramatic moment without ever losing the number’s overall shape.

The second act follows Joe (Herman in a “Nebraska” jacket–a touch devised by Peter Martins when he choreographed the Broadway production) through a series of adventures following his separation from Emma. Herman has replaced Martins’s semiabstract scenario about Joe’s sexual dalliances with an action-packed plot: Joe goes from a seedy Times Square hotel (where he’s robbed) to imprisonment on a trumped-up rape charge to a lowly job as a designer’s office boy to a final heroic reconciliation with Emma, whose designs have been plagiarized by Joe’s boss. This hyperactive story line recalls a silent-movie melodrama–a reference playfully reinforced at one point by an impersonation of Charlie Chaplin–but there’s nothing simpleminded about the virtuosic choreography. Headed by Herman (with his sweat-drenched, raffishly long hair), the dancers explode in sequences that range from elegant ballet to show-biz strutting to a delightful tap-dance episode that fairly bursts at the seams with controlled excitement.

Lloyd Webber’s score, with lyrics by Don Black and Richard Maltby Jr., is pleasurable pop, a refreshing alternative to the bloated schmaltz that dominates the composer’s later work. (Song and Dance’s various incarnations, which have featured such divas as Bernadette Peters, Melissa Manchester, and Sarah Brightman, date back to a BBC TV special more than a dozen years ago.) Jordan Ross provides Resnik’s spunky, fine-tailored costumes; William B. Fosser designed the set, a sort of vestigial jungle gym that hangs pointlessly over the stage. It’s the only wrong touch in an otherwise terrific production that showcases a marvelous singing actress at the top of her form and a magnificent dancer-choreographer in a brilliant breakthrough.