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Smiles and seriousness. (Dance Theater).

IT WAS THE BROADWAY SEASON NOBODY was in the mood for, shadowed by the smoke from the World Trade Center and the ashes of our inviolability. John Carrafa was there at both ends of it, choreographing the very sardonic fable Urinetown in September and the rather less sardonic fable Into the Woods in May. Susan Stroman worked in dark tones, too: Thou Shalt Not, adapted from a Zola novel, featured a gang-rape ballet, and her dances for Oklahoma! carried a somber, gritty undercurrent. And Christopher Wheeldon abandoned ballet temporarily to choreograph the corrosive New York nightlife of Sweet Smell of Success.

But somehow the shows that seemed to connect most solidly with audiences--if not necessarily with critics--were Thoroughly Modern Millie, stooping to conquer with low comedy and the antic Charlestons of Tony winner Rob Ashford, and the equally fluffy Mamma Mia!, with songs of the 1970s pop phenomenon ABBA and the rock-based dances of Anthony Van Laast.

There's something else these two shows shared: Each managed to garner a Tony nomination for a previously unknown leading lady. Louise Pitre, a Canadian stage veteran making her Broadway debut in Mamma Mia!, is now a New York name. And Sutton Foster, a newcomer who started out in the chorus when Millie was taking shape, won the Tony for her efforts.

Ashford has given Foster tap numbers and 1920s-flavored jazz dance to do, and with her long legs and evident training, she looks terrific in both. But she's not the only dancer to land a lead on Broadway this season.

The first was Kate Levering, who hung up her 42nd Street ingenue tap shoes to step into the character shoes of Therese Raquin, the tormented heroine of Thou Shalt Not. And then there was Josefina Gabrielle, a former member of the National Ballet of Portugal, who moved effortlessly from Oklahoma's kick-up-your heels real-life Laurey to the troubled Laurey of the Dream Ballet.

Therese was introduced in a kind of Cinderella dance in which she daydreamed a more romantic life for herself. Sure enough, her Prince Charming was watching, and fell for her on the spot. And later, after the pair had murdered her husband and taken up residence in the bedroom he continued to haunt, the distraught, guilt-ridden Therese took to the streets of New Orleans for a sexually and psychologically explicit dance of white-hot intensity.

Stroman believes the show's less-than-enthusiastic reception had to do with unlucky timing: It opened in the fall, when, she says, critics and audiences wanted to be distracted rather than taken on a guilt trip. Based on the audience favorites of the season, she's probably not wrong about that; but she's perhaps also overlooking some serious flaws in Thou Shalt Not. Whatever the problems, they were not related to the choreography, which was brilliant. In fact, if Stroman were ever to revisit it, she could probably knit the show's dance numbers into a resonant full-evening ballet.

As for her work in Oklahoma!, it should have won her another Tony Award. Her cowboy jigs and country reels literally vivify the show. The most striking of her innovations, of course, is the one alluded to above. In previous productions, the singing actress playing Laurey always gave way to a dancing stand-in in Agnes de Mille's famous Dream Ballet. But Stroman's choreography does away with the double casting and allows Josefina Gabrielle her remarkable performance in the role of Laurey.

Gabrielle, Levering, and Foster notwithstanding, musical stars are usually more accomplished as singers than as dancers. Which brings us back to Carrafa, who has made a specialty of choreographing for nondancers. In Urinetown and Into the Woods, he creates the illusion of complexity using basic steps. Dance fans visiting Urinetown will especially enjoy his references to other choreographers and, in particular, his comic homage to Alvin Ailey's Revelations. At the wonderful, Tony-winning revival of Into the Woods, they will also enjoy the jaunty little skipping steps Carrafa designed to get the cast into the woods and out again. If only getting us out of the woods could be as elegantly accomplished!

Sylviane Gold has written about theater for the Boston Phoenix, The Wall Street Journal, Newsday, The New York Times, and other publications.
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Author:Gold, Sylviane
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2002
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