REVIEW: Little Dancer’s pre-Broadway run at Kennedy Center indicates it will be a smashing success.
By the time “Little Dancer” reaches Broadway, it will undoubtedly be the season’s impossible-to-buy-a-ticket, smash hit. In a brief tryout run at the Eisenhower Theatre in the Kennedy Center, it projects all the necessary ingredients that will make it a successful musical.
Built around the Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer wax statue, Susan Stroman directs and choreographs this tale of Marie van Goethem, the 14-year-old Paris Corps de Ballet dancer who was the artist’s model for it. Tiler Peck as the young Marie, projects a charmingly gamine performance. Peck is a gifted principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and has a voice that will carry her through a long musical career when she can no longer tolerate the physical demands of ballet. It is exciting to see her perform.
“Little Dancer” resonates with a big Broadway sound, with the music of Stephen Flaherty and a book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. The music, however, is not memorable. “Little Dancer” invites comparison with Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” also based on a work of art: a painting by George Seurat. Just a few months ago Signature Theatre staged a memorable production of the Sondheim musical. It is unfair to compare them, but it is a reminder that there doesn’t seem to be anyone who can approach Sondheim.
“Little Dancer” begins with the death of Degas when the adult Marie, the Broadway star Rebecca Luker, arrives to talk to the artist Mary Cassatt, Degas’ friend who is settling his estate. Marie has never seen the controversial statue that Degas created of her, and over the years no one has seen or heard of her. The real life Marie was never heard of again and there is no record of where or when she died. In Marie’s pivotal appearance, no effort is made to explain where she has been. Her bearing and dress evoke the impression that she may have risen from her poverty to a bourgeois, but unexceptional life.
Luker, with a wonderful voice and fluid movements, controls the stage whenever she is present. The adult Marie is an odd conceit as she drifts in and out of the action, sometimes on the stage at the same time with the young Marie. It is distracting until the plot structure comes together and you realize why she is there. Luker’s adult Marie is a strong and vital part of “Little Dancer.”
You are drawn into Peck’s portrayal of the young Marie, who is reminiscent of a young Leslie Caron. She is often late for rehearsals at the Paris Opera ballet because she helps her alcoholic mother (Karen Ziemba) at a laundry. She poses for Degas to bring in some money to pay back what she has stolen from him and also for her family, especially to provide for her little sister, Sophia Anne Caruso, a young actress with a big voice.
Marie has a potentially successful ballet career ahead for her but she is feisty and uncooperative in fulfilling the ballet company’s management expectation that the dancers be accommodating to the rich men with tall silk hats. The musical is set in Belle Époque Paris where the sophisticated well-to-do men and women look down on ballet dancers and other performers who are expected to be admired more for their sexual favors than their artistry.
There are a number of things going on in “Little Dancer,” including a back story of Marie’s older sister, Antoinette (Jenny Powers), who has succumbed to the comfortable rewards available to dancers who are compliant. It is a tenuous existence, but one of the few opportunities for poor girls. She is especially poignant when she sings the ‘Little Opportunities’ number.
One of the flaws of “Little Dancer” that will likely be fixed before opening on Broadway is that it is too long. It runs nearly three hours. The pacing could be improved by some trimming and editing. The first act is much too long and the shorter second act is weak. It is surprising that the biggest number is at the beginning, but the ending is clever and surprising, as well as emotionally moving. The problems “Little Dancer” has will easily be corrected before it opens on Broadway to what will likely be a long and successful run.