at the Weinstein Center for the Performing Arts

June 21 and 22

Whether you believe musical theater is entirely moribund or the most vital and accessible performance form in America, your position is supported by The Ballad of Etta Blue, an original one-act musical by Cheri Coons and Eric Barnes with choreography by David Puszczewicz. It premiered here recently as the second half of “An Evening of World Premieres,” presented by the David Puszh Dance Company and a vocal group called Hearsay.

Surrounded by domestic violence, a child discovers old movies and escapes to a fantasy world “forever at the mercy of [her] remote control.” As a teenager she creates an alter ego, also called Etta Blue, a B-movie composite with a host of imaginary lovers–the gangster Louie, tough Scab, and a Fred Astaire look-alike. As an adult, she finds all three lovers in Stan, a man who dances with her in the Dominick’s produce department: fantasy and reality blur.

Fantasy and reality blur onstage too: dance sequences and staged movie excerpts punctuate the onstage action and expository monologues. When the fantasy elements succeed, they do more than illustrate. One pas de deux for Stan and Etta, danced by Brian Jeffery and Winifred Haun, is both fantasy and prophecy: the dance reflects the obvious miscommunication occurring downstage but also prefigures Stan’s proposal and Etta’s later nightmare. Fantasy and reality interpenetrate when Stan does propose: Ted Koch and Cathy Schenkelberg meld the diction and physicality of the “real” Stan and Etta with the harsh voices and Brooklyn accents of their fantasy counterparts, Scab and the Etta Blue alter ego, in an earlier scene.

Etta Blue frustrates theatrical convention but never quite manages to overturn it. The extended monologues of Etta Blue mark moments of reality in the play’s juxtaposition of dance, cinema, nightmare, and life; but because the fantasies are fully staged, they have a theatrical impact that Etta’s reality lacks.

Jay Stoutenborough’s lighting design leaves a third of the stage–the third where the monologues and songs occur–very dimly lit. When Etta chooses reality over fantasy, she chooses exposition over action, she chooses shadow over extremes of light and darkness; and she makes her choice only when it seems that Stan is about to die. It’s a conventionally happy ending: boy meets girl, boy saves girl, boy and girl dance in the produce section happily ever after.

Of course, one response to the conventions of musical theater is parody. And it’s not at all surprising that that is the direction choreographer Timothy O’Slynne takes with Carousel, one of the eight works that made up the other half of this program. Carousel is a Broadway show in miniature–A Chorus Line revisited. The scene: rehearsal. The cast: one recalcitrant dancer, three workhorse hoofers, and one crabby stage manager. The action: insurrection and a slap.

The choreography is trite: flashy ports de bras and extensions, dizzying chaine turns, and fixed smiles. The men are always out of step, a fraction of a count behind, or on the verge of collapse: an apt comment on the state of dancing in community theaters and opera houses alike. By setting this parody to a Jacques Brel score, O’Slynne takes a poke at musical-theater performers and directors: to them Brel is “art”; Gershwin is “entertainment.” And the animal-headed kiddie swim-rings around the performers’ waists? No doubt both a slap at cheap production values and another example of O’Slynne’s insatiable appetite for kitsch.

In the uncredited Paper Moon, Monica Blackmon, Joseph M. Killilea, Amanda McCann, and Harrison McEldowney mug and lip-synch to the amplified voices of Hearsay soprano Susan Shuler, alto Julie Guetterman, tenor Bob Byrd, and baritone Jeff Church, which rebound from the balcony. The denouement is mercifully quick: just what you’d expect if Natalie Wood’s and Milli Vanilli’s vocal doubles had their way.

Jim Corti’s Walkin’ is built around locomotion: three couples walking, stepping out together. Sweeping ronds de jambe and quick leaps move the couples across the stage; they wheel and spin. Like Underwood’s arrangement of the Miles Davis score, everything is smooth and graceful. Walkin’ is easy to watch, neither complicated nor unexpected, but it suffers from the dancers’ excess of lively self-consciousness. Blackmon is the exception: her dancing is pliant and musical, following the shape of a phrase rather than achieving a certain position on a specific count; her facial expression is natural (she smiles only now and then); she gives the impression of being utterly involved in the act of dancing, far more aware of the music and the other dancers than of the audience.

Like Corti’s Walkin’, artistic director David Puszczewicz’s Jumpin’ is a straightforward response to the title and dynamics of its Count Basie score, but where Walkin’ ambles, Jumpin’ hurtles. The dancers bound onstage, leap onto mini-trampolines, and carom off. The movement alludes to children’s play, to tap, the lindy, aerobics, and gymnastics; the ballet references are especially funny. Because the movement is so unrestrained, the dancers are more fully involved; they have no leisure for posturing except as the choreography requires it–a grimace, a grin, a wild-eyed sign of the cross. Of all the jazz and show tunes on the program, only Jumpin’ allows the musicians–John Goldman, Jeff Handley, Joel McMillon, and Hearsay–the ease and freedom listeners expect of jazz.

Two songs–“Beyond the Sea” and “Someone to Watch Over Me”–are performed without dancing; they suggest just how forceful standards can be. Underwood’s arrangement of the Gershwin original, especially its rhythmic stretching and transient dissonance, renders the music not merely wistful but plaintive; unexpected harmonies evoke sacred music and other musical forms.

Puszczewicz’s Not While I’m Around is lean and elegant; performed by Laura Elena Haney and Joseph C. Mann, the dance is as much a matter of shape and line as of romance. Neither the dance nor the Sondheim score is cloying: the lifts are plain, linear; the dancers mirror each other in balances and extensions, support each other in turn, move in unison. Yet ultimately, his is the active role: he raises her from her curling crouch, lowers her to his lap, supports her as she stands. Not While I’m Around closes with an embrace that melts into a two-step, evoking the images of gender inherent in social dancing and our culture.

Corti’s puzzling Love Song responds to the wild and urgent quality of Underwood’s score; and because his lush synthesizer veils Angela Jackson’s lyrics, the music offers an enigma of its own. Harsh downlighting illuminates and shadows the musculature of three men with wet hair wearing yellow trunks; red ropes wrap their bare skin. Their weight is dropped, their bodies angled and pulled away from vertical: an image of simultaneous sensuality and torture. Fast steps, leaps, and turns in unison emphasize the lines of limbs and torsos, but each dancer dances as if he were alone: whether their movement is in unison, opposition, or canon, it’s differentiated only briefly and only at the end of the piece. The dance’s repeated variations on a fast phrase of rapid weight shifts initiated in the pelvis and driven relentlessly by the score suggest possession or frenzy. Love Song ends with the dancers spinning offstage into darkness: a disturbing image of three men driven to the limit; each alone, exhausted, deprived of will and consciousness.