Making Contact

Susan Stroman's Broadway 'dance play' gives everyone a lift.

When Gary Franco first strolls across the stage in the "dance play" Contact, he doesn't let on that he's danced ballet for the last 20 years.

"When I'm just the headwaiter, I don't give away that I'm a dancer," Franco explained last week by phone from his home in Los Angeles. "I try hard to walk across the stage like I'm a regular person."

The subterfuge is all part of the game of Contact, which alights in Tucson next Wednesday for a five-day run at Centennial Hall. Franco's headwaiter, laboring in a 1950s Queens Italian restaurant, metamorphoses into a great danseur of the ballet, and the oppressed housewife he's been waiting on, Meg Howrey, transforms herself into a prima ballerina. Dance liberates them both, and catapults them into joy.

That's the point of Contact, a genre-bending Broadway musical that has no live music, no live singing and very little dialogue, but does have stellar dancing to spare. In the hands of Broadway choreographer Susan Stroman, who also directed, dance not only tells the story, it serves as a metaphor for love and lust and, well, contact of the human kind. The show ran on Broadway for three years before closing last September, winning extravagant encomiums from critics as discerning as Ben Brantley of The New York Times ("restores the pleasure principle to the American musical. ... To dance is to live in Ms. Stroman's world") and John Lahr of The New Yorker ("startling and fresh and free from the infernal pretentiousness of so much Broadway spectacle"). Critics weary of the Great White Way's revivals, recycled tributes and movie take-offs saw Stroman's distinctive concoction as a kind of salvation.

"Susan Stroman modestly proposes, in a triptych of simple stories, that perhaps dance and dancers can revive the musical's narrative impulse," Lahr wrote. A grateful theater world awarded the show every honor known to Broadway, from Tony and Drama Desk, to Outer Critics Circle and Drama League. (Stroman went on to choreograph the hit show The Producers.)

Contact's dancing, Franco said, is an amalgam of styles, including ballet and swing dance, and show moves that evoke the great movie musicals of mid-20th century. "I compare it to MGM, Agnes de Mille (who choreographed the original Oklahoma). It's old-school theatrical dance, and the dancing tells the story."

The show is divided into three distinct dance playlets. The first, "Swinging," visually re-creates a lush 1767 painting by Fragonard, an ancien-régime bit of erotica that pictures an aristocrat and a servant lustily eyeing a girl on a swing. Three sumptuously costumed dancers take this rococo tale to its logical conclusion, but they dance to music Marie-Antoinette would hardly have recognized: a recording of Rodgers and Hart's "My Heart Stood Still."

This short piece, just 13 minutes long, hardly prepares audiences for what is to come, Fanco said. The show "starts with this cute little dance number, and they have no idea what to expect. The show surprises the audience and takes them on an emotional roller-coaster."

Up second, "Did You Move?" is the restaurant piece. Its 45 minutes careen from tragedy to Lucille Ball comedy, and in a nice counterpoint to "Swinging," its soundtrack is a classical compendium of Tchaikovsky, Bizet and Grieg. The third and longest work, "Contact," is a complex tale about an advertising copywriter (Daniel McDonald) who despairs of ever finding meaning in his work or love in his life. Preparing to commit suicide, he's mentally transported to a swing-dance club, there to gaze in rapture on a dancing Girl in a Yellow Dress (Colleen Dunne). A rock-and-roll hit parade of golden oldies climaxes in a real swing number, Benny Goodman's "Sing Sing Sing."

"The music is all recorded," Franco said, but he believes it "works great. Some people make a big deal out of having a live orchestra, but in so many shows the music is live and the dance is canned. We have canned music but live dancing."

Stroman's demanding choreography is "like aerobics combined with weightlifting," Franco said. "In my piece, it looks pretty simple, but it's one lift after another." Most of the leads have only one main role as a result, but all 20 in the troupe (and the six understudies) are "incredibly talented," he said. He and his Contact dance partner, Meg Howrey, danced together 15 years ago at the Boston Ballet. Franco later freelanced with ballet companies from the American Folk Ballet to Inland Ballet Theatre.

"After I saw the musical Swing, I decided I wanted to do a Broadway show," he said, and two years ago, after auditioning for Stroman herself in New York, he won the part in the touring Contact production.

Ironically, his Broadway-show gig calls for him to dance ballet. And he relies on his ballet training when he warms up the troupe before every show by leading them through a ballet barre class. "I have to break into a sweat," he explained, to cope with the rigorous dancing ahead. Still, he loves the Stroman choreography. "If I have to do something eight days a week, I'm glad it's Contact."