Shall We Dance, Sadler's Wells, London

Intentions are good in this Richard Rodgers tribute but, as a trip round the world, it ends up going nowhere
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The Independent Culture

Combining the hearty kicking of a hoedown with the controlled frenzy of tap-dancing may be pouring syrup on your honey, but this sugar rush is just what is needed after the dull first act of Shall We Dance. Adam Cooper's tribute to composer Richard Rodgers looks terrific on paper: a licence to mine the rich seams of music crystallised in a career lasting more than 50 years.

Strange, then, that from the dozens of shows and more than 1,000 songs, Cooper picks some non-entities from the largely forgotten Babes in Arms, State Fair and Cinderella while sailing straight past South Pacific. Stranger too, perhaps, to have chosen a composer whose work is so inextricably linked with the great lyricists Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II. And that is one of the reasons the hoedown brings the house down: the dancers vocalise, and with every "Whee-oop!" blood pumps through the veins of this hitherto lifeless thing.

Stripped of their words, the songs are distorted. There is more than meets the eye in a number like the liltingly lovely "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered", for example. It sounds like a love anthem, and is danced as such, but Hart injected it with venom: "Wise at last, my eyes at last / Are cutting you down to your size at last ...." Not such a great chat-up line, after all.

Cooper is an unassailable ambassador for dance, coming up with project after project to revive classics and reach wider audiences. So it is a disappointment that as a vehicle for this foray through the Rodgers back catalogue, he chooses that clapped-out workhorse, the round-the-world tour. As The Guy, he emerges from the promising opening café scene to embark on a series of slight romances as the nations swirl by – now the US, now somewhere Vienna-ish, now the bristling Balkans, the mysterious East, and home in a barrel – yes, really – to Oklahoma!.

Designer Paul Farnsworth paves his way with location-setting back projections, and anchors each port of call with costumes so varied – ballgowns in dolly-mixture pastels, motley national dress, cowboy boots and denims – it feels as though not one shred in the dressing-up box has been wasted. Richard Balcombe delivers a star turn as musical arranger and musical director, with some very fancy footwork through the Rodgers songbook.

In the shadow of each passing lover, the splendid Ebony Molina as The Right Girl pops up everywhere, waiting patiently for The Guy to realise his best chance is with her. Hanging on from time to time is the droll Tom Dwyer as The Friend. Noi Tolmer is charming as Eastern Girl in the King and I/ Flower Drum Song sequence and Pip Jordan refreshingly dynamic as Wild West Girl. But there is no excuse for the grotesque Puppet Master of David Paul Kierce – you know he's a villain because he bends at a right angle and swishes his cloak a lot – turning nasty with his tiresome real-life puppet silhouette show.

More mysterious by far is the casting of actress Emma Samms, returning to the world of dance denied her by teenage injury. Stately and elegant, she is not so much a dancer, more a parcel, carefully passed from hand to hand, essentially a graceful presence.

Hurrah, then, for Sarah Wildor, dancing for the first time since she and Adam Cooper had their first child last year. Amid the explosions of colour, she plays a cowed moll, drained of colour and energy until she is revived by Cooper, in the Slaughter on 10th Avenue sequence from On Your Toes which is the highlight of that remarkable show, revived by Cooper six years ago. It was truly lovely to see the couple re-create this showstopper – but unbelievably frustrating that it was cut short before the breathtaking section in which the male lead, Junior, frenetically dances over and over again the steps that will ultimately save his life.

This dance show is sound in its intentions – to celebrate the music of Richard Rodgers 30 years after his death and to put dancing of all genres on an equal footing. But there is a good deal of noodling, and maybe it just tries too hard, with too many styles, too many props, and too many big finishes when not much has gone before. So, shall we dance? Oh, all right then, but forgive me if I sing along.

'Shall We Dance', Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0844 412 4300) until 30 Aug

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