FIRST OFF, I have to confess I don't have a strong appreciation of musicals. They always seem a bit awkward to me, and a bit artificial. How many people do you know who burst into song in the middle of a conversation to communicate their most heartfelt emotions? Just when the scene begins to build intensity--boom--everyone's singing and the intensity fizzles away.
Having said that, however, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? works, although oddly, in a musical format. Oddly because singing and dancing are usually equated with gaiety and happiness; and anyone who has read Horace McCoy's 1935 novel of the same name or seen Sydney Pollack's 1969 film version knows there's not much merriment to be found here.
The Arizona Repertory Theatre production of Nagle Jackson's new musical, now playing at the University of Arizona, portrays a dark and desperate period of American history during the years following the 1929 stock market crash.
Dance marathons first appeared in the late 1920s as an inconsequential fad, but by the mid-1930s they had turned into an ugly business reflecting the hopelessness of the times. During a period when one out of every four American workers was out of a job, dance marathons provided the sole means of subsistence for many participants. Contestants were housed and fed as long as they continued dancing, and if they had the endurance of a race horse and could be the last couple standing, they could walk away with prize money--usually $1,000 or $2,000.
The contestants were treated like animals and often referred to as horses. After hundreds of hours, the dance contestants would enter the "derby" where they would run around a track painted on the floor. Promoters got rich selling tickets and drinks to spectators who came in droves to see people degrade and humiliate themselves after dancing to the point of physical and emotional exhaustion.
"Take a look at some of these thoroughbreds," says Rocky, the dance promoter in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? "Brought to you by the National Endurance Amusement Association.
"People don't come to see beautiful. They come to see people who are worse off than they are," Rocky tells a contestant after destroying another contestant's ball gown. "And they don't come until they smell blood."
Marathon dancing had truly become a blood sport, and by the late 1930s 50 percent of the states had outlawed it. In his notes, director and choreographer Richard T. Hanson likens it to America's present fascination with the anguished and downtrodden exploited daily on daytime television talk shows, recounting their pitiable stories in exchange for first-class airfare and a weekend in a deluxe hotel.
The action centers around the Surfside Ballroom in Venice Beach, California, in 1934. The arriving contestants know the game, and their misery is masked under a thin shield of hopefulness. They come from all parts of the country, each with a wretched story of misfortune.
The story revolves around Gloria and Robert, both desperately lost and alone, who meet at a bus stop and join up to enter the marathon--they both see the contest as their last chance. Last chance for what is uncertain in the beginning, but as the hours turn to days and weeks and months, we realize that Gloria, along with many of the contestants, views the marathon literally as her last chance at life.
After a couple of weeks of dancing with only one 10-minute rest period allowed each hour, the exhaustion begins to work on minds and memories in a dark and disturbing way. The gravity of the era begins to emerge through the actions of the dancers.
The talented UA cast, led by guest artist Jeffrey Rockwell, successfully portrays the brutality of the marathon circuit. Rockwell gives us all the sleaze we can tolerate (with a Dennis Hopper kind of sneer) in his portrayal of Rocky, the dance promoter. Danyelle Angelina Bossardét plays Gloria (the role Jane Fonda immortalized) with grace and urgency and a haunting sadness. She also has a beautiful singing voice. Antonio Castellanos starts out a little stiff in the role of Robert, but succeeds in the end.
Although Gloria and Robert are central to the action, many moments are stolen from them by the most fascinating couple on the floor, Bertha and Stan Baumgarten, played by Marsha Bagwell and Rob Sutton. In addition to her excellent acting skills, Bagwell takes full advantage of an opportunity to impress us with her deep, rich singing capability. One other standout in the large cast is Steve Minow (Bucky), who seems to drop into the 1930s era naturally with his intriguing look and his dancing skills.
The music for They Shoot Horses, Don't They? written by Robert Sprayberry provides a good mix in the beginning, but as the marathon drags on, so does the music. A few numbers could be cut (Gonna Have Me a Baby, for example) without any harm to the story. As it is, the play is more than three hours long and anxiousness begins to set in.
Another problem that all UA productions seem to face each time they confront serious subject matter is an overall feeling of levity. Either the energetic perkiness of the college students is just impossible to mask, or possibly, that same morbid fascination with the degradation of another human being that kept spectators coming in the 1930s also touched this 1990s audience. During even the most brutal moments of couples dragging each other around the floor or chained together to hold one another up, the audience pointed and laughed at each agonizing drop of one more contestant and the hopeless, crazed look of the partner left alone.
By the way, the longest recorded dance marathon ran 4,152 1/2 hours, from June 6 to November 30, 1932. The prize was $1,000.
Arizona Repertory Theatre's production of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? will continue with performances through March 11 at 8 p.m., with a 2 p.m. performance on March 11 and 12. Tickets are $12 and $14 for adults, with discounts for students, seniors and UA employees. All performances take place in the Laboratory Theatre, UA Fine Arts Complex, at the southeast corner of Speedway and Park. For more information call 621-1162.
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