Broadway show tunes come to life in a new way in the Women’s Theatre Festival’s production of Music and the Mirror, a full-length revue told entirely in dance. Think of it as a Broadway’s greatest hits cabaret act, but skilled vocalists are replaced by skilled dancers.
Solo, duo, trio, and larger group pieces are set to the music of some of Broadway’s greatest classics as well as some very new songs. No narration is present or needed. The songs and the dances intertwine to effectively tell stories — frequently offering new perspectives on these songs and putting them in a new context.
Conceived, directed, and choreographed by Sarah Griner Duncan, the piece features eight female dancers and two male dancers. The music is certainly not all sung by women, nor are the songs all about women’s’ experiences. But Duncan’s choreography, assisted by dancer-choreographer Elizabeth Anderson, effectively uses the female body to tell these stories. Although the choreographer reigns supreme in pieces like this, the dancers brought such personality to the mix that it is hard to believe that they did not choreograph their own pieces.
First-time lighting designer Alyssa Petrone does some of the finest work that I’ve ever seen at Sonorous Road Productions. Her lighting is inventive, bold, and surprising. Even with a relatively small grid and LED lighting (making it difficult to dim effectively), Petrone helps tell the stories as much as the music or the dancers themselves.
Karen Williams’ costumes are beautiful, functional, and tailored to fit the story as much as the dancer. However, some dancers are more skilled than others at blancing high-heeled dance shoes.
A brief but poignant moment interrupts the show. Duncan gives us a peek into the mind of female performers and the struggles that they face, navigating a world that places more emphasis on the look of the body rather than its abilities or the thoughts of the person within it. This presentation is followed by an energetic and empowering performance of “Seize the Day” from the 2011 male-driven hit musical Newsies (recently presented at the Durham Performing Arts Center). The number shows not only the physical power and talent of these women, but also emphasizes the esprit de corps of the group — something not always shared between dancers.
Lyrics and/or music by women are featured in several spots, including songs from Bright Star, Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, The Color Purple, and Fun Home. It’s a shame that more of the numbers are not from female musicians, but that’s part of the problem: there aren’t many. This is one of the Women’s Theatre Festival’s key messages.
The show opens with a spirited Danielle Harris dancing to “Music and the Mirror” from A Chorus Line. The theme of the song sets the tone of the show, but perhaps lacks the musical energy one desires from a Big Opening Number. That being said, Harris is a capable dancer and engages the audience well, despite the slower-paced song. Even better is her emotionally charged “Something Wonderful” from The King and I.
Director-choreographer Sarah Duncan delivers a powerful trifecta of solo pieces. “Valjean’s Soliloquy” from Les Misérables is her most impressive moment in the show and one of the strongest of the entire revue. Jean Valjean’s rage, passion, and desperation emerge from Duncan’s body with a jarring savageness. Although it is a “man’s song,” we quickly forget the gender of the person singing and care only about the pain of the character and the story they are telling. This contrasts perfectly with the delicacy of “Someone to Watch Over Me” from Crazy for You and the sultriness of “Blues in the Night” from Swing!
Heather Shinpaugh provides some light-hearted fare with “I Can’t Do It Alone” from Chicago and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” from My Fair Lady. Both numbers have been adjusted from their original presentation to allow wonderfully comedic moments, which Shinpaugh delivers with great sass and physical skill. Her solo performance of “Natural Woman” from Beautiful is one of the show’s most moving pieces.
Victoria Barnes dances with youthful exuberance and charm in a number of group numbers, but shines especially in her solo performance of “If You Knew My Story” from Bright Star, which she delivers with the cheeky sweetness of Dorothy Gale. She also gives the show some strong comedic moments with wonderful facial expressions and double-takes, particularly in “I Can’t Do It Alone” alongside Shinpaugh.
Emily Compton powers through the show with several strong performances. She does a delicate dégagé devant between sexiness and sadness in both “Before and After You” from The Bridges of Madison County and Cabaret’s “Maybe This Time.” But it is her performance as one half of “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind” from Spring Awakening that shows what a passionate and expressive dancer she is.
Elizabeth Anderson nearly runs away with the show with a number of explosive routines. She co-choreographed and co-dances “Endless Night” from The Lion King, a piece which gives the show its most emotionally intense moments. Anderson has the ability to do what many cannot: she is both a dancer and an actress in equal measure — and it shows here.
When a portion of her costume came loose, she simply tossed it aside and powered through the song, not missing a beat. In fact, the frustration of such a moment seemed to inform her performance, and the pain of her character seemed to be enhanced by it. This is a how a gifted performer uses her environment. Her punk-infused and crazed “Letterbomb” from American Idiot is furious and fun, whereas her “Being Alive” from Company, though beautifully danced, feels under-choreographed at times.
Ra’Chel Fowler struts onto the stage with “I Feel the Earth Move” from Beautiful, and we are delighted when she does. Her vibrant and joyful dancing matches the flare of her costume. A song title was never more appropriately matched with its choreography. She serves as the other half of “Don’t Do Sadness/Blue Wind” from Spring Awakening, in which she displays further physical presence and emotional strength. It is with “I’ll Cover You (Reprise)” from Rent that we see a vulnerability and a brokenness that brought tears to several eyes.
Sandi Walker, who catches the eye in many early numbers, including “The Movie in My Mind” from Miss Saigon and “Miss Celie’s Pants” from The Color Purple, deftly mixes fortitude and subjection in “Days and Days” from recent Tony¸ winner Fun Home. Walker has a grace in her movement, especially in her upper body, that cannot be matched on this stage.
A dynamic duo of dudes, Ted Willis and Stan Williams, are brought on board to fill the small but significant roles of men in some of these stories. Willis’ pas de deux with Danielle Harris in “Something Wonderful” from The King and I is filled with passion, longing, and heartbreak. Williams’s comedic timing and dancer’s energy in support of Heather Shinpaugh’s Eliza Doolittle in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” from My Fair Lady gives the number much of its charm. He is both alluring and aggressive while teamed up with Emily Compton in “The Movie in My Mind” from Miss Saigon.
The show concludes with a beautifully choreographed and designed group performance of “The Song of Purple Summer” from Spring Awakening, led elegantly by Sandi Walker, This is a strong piece on which to end the show, because it sums it all up: stories can be told through dance and often made better than they were before. The strength and grace of women stands out as the defining feature of Music and the Mirror. It is an entertaining and moving show and should certainly not be missed.
The show is in the PG zone for some sensual moments, emotional intensity, and some naughty Green Day language.
The Women’s Theatre Festival presents MUSIC AND THE MIRROR at 8 p.m. Sept. 2 and 3 p.m. Sept. 3 at Sonorous Road Productions, 209 Oberlin Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27605.
TICKETS: $16.52, including the service fee.
BOX OFFICE: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2560812.
Sarah Griner Duncan (director and choreographer): https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=11818240 (Facebook page).
Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing on it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.