Shall We Dance, Sadler's Wells, London
Rodgers tribute misses a step
Monday 03 August 2009
As a summer dance spectacular, Adam Cooper's Shall We Dance ticks all its boxes. It has show tunes, a loose storyline, a range of dance styles and lead performers – Cooper himself, the affecting Sarah Wildor and Dynasty actress Emma Samms. It's both bouncy and pedestrian.
The show is a tribute to Richard Rodgers. Choreographer Cooper and his musical arranger, Richard Balcombe, have taken numbers from a dozen Rodgers musicals, building them into a round-the-world journey for a lovestruck hero. As the music goes from On Your Toes to The King and I to the late Do I Hear a Waltz?, Cooper's protagonist pops up in Broadway clubs, a vague Far East and a Viennese ballroom.
The dances here are efficient and energetic, but not magical. This is material that could have gone further. Balcombe's musical arrangements are bright and brash, with the band playing on a raised platform at the back of the stage. There's no singing, which is a pity. Rodgers formed two major songwriting teams, first with Lorenz Hart, then with Oscar Hammerstein II. The lyrics, and the way Rodgers set them, is a big part of his popularity.
Cooper obviously wanted a wordless show, a story told in dance. He's given himself too much plot, and not enough. His hero is a soft-shoe Don Juan, with a girl in every musically convenient port – but he doesn't play it quite like that. Cooper doesn't seem callous or needy or even particularly susceptible: it's a new number, so there's a new girl. Yet he also wants a sense of the hero's journey. The Guy makes friends, gets beaten up, ends by standing up to a villainous Big Boss.
The drama has most force in the "Slaughter on 10th Avenue" scene. Former Royal Ballet principal Sarah Wildor appears as a downtrodden prostitute, having a doomed affair with Cooper. His choreography is full of Kenneth MacMillan-style lifts and catches, with some showgirl strutting. Wildor gives it real pathos, moving with soft abandon as she clings to Cooper. He responds with the most ardour he's shown all evening.
The rest of the show goes briskly through its formulas. The whirling couples of the Viennese ballroom are effective, the women's full skirts swinging as they turn. Cooper is more ambitious in an Eastern scene for shadow puppets. The shadows are cast by real dancers, with real strings attached. Yet the scene lacks bite. Cooper needs to make his shadows creepier, or more stylish.
The Oklahoma! hoedown, with its stomping cowboys, builds up more energy. Cooper has a lively, hard-working cast of dancers, readily stepping up into the many soloist roles. The television actress Emma Samms moves confidently through her numbers. Paul Farnsworth's costumes are colourful, though he gives poor Sarah Wildor a drab and unflattering outfit. Even so, she's the one who gives this show its depth.
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