Comedy and dance tend to go together like rain and parades. But in Susan Stroman's delightful "Contact," the relationship is more like hand and glove. There's nothing new, of course, in the idea of telling dramatic stories through dance. But the form tends to conjure up images either of a classical ballet like "Swan Lake" or the enigmatic, avant-garde work of a choreographer like Martha Clarke. "Contact" is very different. For one thing, the action of the three stories told in the show is driven almost as much by conventional dramatic dialogue as by movement and music. For another, the mood of "Contact" owes much more to Hollywood and the circus than to Tchaikovsky and Nijinsky. John Weidman's stories are not much more than extended sketches. But they are beautifully observed, cleverly structured and wittily told. The play, a smash hit last fall at Lincoln Center's 299-seat Mitzi Newhouse theater, has now been moved to the larger 1,000-seat Vivian Beaumont. The first half of the evening contains two short pieces. The first, set in a forest glade in 1767, is a comic meditation on a painting by Jean Fragonard, "The Swing." The second, set in an Italian restaurant in Queens in 1954, might be summed up as "Swan Lake" meets "The Sopranos."
The longer second half of the show is set in New York in 1999, and recounts the tragicomic tale of a successful advertising director on the brink of suicide. This leap through the centuries may sound incoherent. But the stories are tied together by the fact that each deals more or less directly with the theme of fantasy. The innocent scene of the swing in the glade turns out to be a wicked sexual game. The wife of the Mafia thug in the Queens restaurant escapes from his bullying into fantastic flights of dance whenever his back is turned. And the advertising man flees from despair into the obsessive pursuit of a fabulous dancer in a yellow dress. Weidman's writing is funny but dark. In each of the last two stories, the humor is given a slightly hysterical edge by images of violence and death. Stroman's choreography, by contrast, is all pleasure and playfulness. The swing in the first story becomes a kind of trapeze on which Stephanie Michels mixes dance, circus and seduction. The Queens fantasy has the kind of comic choreography you get in a Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton movie, and Karen Ziemba has the madcap energy to match. The air of menace in the dramatic situation makes the exuberant absurdity of the dancing all the more thrilling. Boyd Gaines' odyssey in search of his fantasy woman, meanwhile, has the feel of a Gene Kelly dream sequence from "An American in Paris." Though set in 1999, the piece feels much closer to the MGM world of the late 1940s. What Stroman does, in other words, is not so much invent new moves as reinvigorate old ones. "Contact" becomes an exhilarating ride through a dazzling variety of styles, from classical ballet to jive and swing. What might have been a collection of dance clichés becomes a rapturous reawakening of dead forms. What might have been an exercise in nostalgia is shaped by a sharp, deadpan 1990s humor. The result is a funny, sexy, sassy and surprising show that makes definite contact with the living.
‘Contact’ has moved upstairs to the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln Center. Although the irresistible dance play has lost some of the exciting intimacy of the smaller theater downstairs, it has gained a buoyant spaciousness that lets its spirit breathe.
The most sparkling and mysterious of the three stories -- all essentially dance pieces with a verbal, non-dance character incorporated into the final two -- remains the last.
It's a strong look at a man pulled back from the jaws of death by a Girl in a Yellow Dress, as written by Sondheim collaborator John Weidman. The man, played by the adaptable Boyd Gaines, is at his wit's end, as we hear Dean Martin sing "You're Nobody 'til Somebody Loves You."
He has just won a professional award for his commercial, given a drunken acceptance speech, and gone home to destroy himself. While home, he tries pills (but spills them), tries to jump from the window (but can't get it open), and then tries hanging (but the rope won't hold).
He tries to find his friends in a club but instead stumbles into a joint that is pool hall by day and dance hall by night, sparely but poetically designed by Thomas Lynch.
There male and female desperados gyrate. A smiling, knowing bartender, acted with insinuating and uneasy charm by Jason Antoon, encourages Gaines to get in the mood.
Director-choreographer Susan Stroman makes this enigmatic dive a last-chance dance saloon. She creates there a sexy, witty danse noire. It is still the most exciting sequence in town, joining what's living in the Broadway idiom to what's vivid in dance, both of which Stroman is master.
The guy dancers -- and Gaines -- are brought to full attention when tall, blonde, beautiful Deborah Yates in a yellow dress cruises into the joint. She goes through one guy after another with a drop-dead decisiveness that seems to have some standard in mind.
"Who is she?" Gaines queries the bartender. "Someone who likes to dance," comes the response. And is he right. The Girl struts her stuff with one panting stud after another as the jukebox plays "Runaround Sue" and "Beyond the Sea."
Stroman, as I've said, is our best. This choreographer of "Crazy for You" and "Show Boat" and the upcoming "Music Man" on Broadway and "Oklahoma" in London (as well as numerous treasures in ballet) makes dance a celebration of body and contact, a site of happiness and the will to live.
The Girl in the Yellow Dress, splendidly incarnated by Yates, actually brings the drunken fool played by Gaines to a harmony with the music of "Do You Wanna Dance?" before vanishing from the strange bar. She smiles, warmly.
The bar has become a utopia. Yates is sublime and her final surprise is yet to come; Gaines is eerily convincing as the suicidal wreck saved by Yates; Antoon is excellent as the supercool, perhaps supernatural bartender.
Of the other two segments, the first remains an amusing curtain raiser. Fragonard's painting, "The Swing," comes to life as a servant (Sean Martin Hingston, excellent) cavorts erotically with his mistress (Stephanie Michels, ditto) to a tune by Rodgers and Hart.
The second introduces us to a threatening husband (Jason Antoon) as the embodiment of anti-dance -- ordering his wife (Karen Ziemba) not to move when he leaves the table in "an Italian restaurant, Queens, 1954."
This piece benefits most from the expansion of space in the Vivian Beaumont, as Ziemba's desperate and demented fancies blossom in hubby's absence.
The most potent antidepressant available in New York at the moment can't be had by prescription, and it isn't measured in milligrams. It is being marketed under the name ''Contact'' and is the manufacture of Susan Stroman, a director, choreographer and inspired alchemist. Advertising has it that ''Contact'' is a ''dance play,'' but those words hardly capture how the show makes you feel. ''Contact'' is a sustained endorphin rush of an evening, that rare entertainment that has you floating all the way home.
Yes, that sound you hear is of expectations shattering over at Lincoln Center, where ''Contact'' opened last night at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, and for once, it's a joyful noise. Ms. Stroman (the choreographer of ''Crazy for You'' and ''Steel Pier''), aided by the dramatist John Weidman and a dream ensemble of dancing actors and acting dancers, has created the unthinkable: a new musical throbbing with wit, sex appeal and a perfectionist's polish. Brimming with a sophistication that is untainted by the usual fin-de-siecle cynicism, ''Contact'' restores the pleasure principle to the American musical. It's the kinetic equivalent of Rodgers and Hart.
The timing is merciful indeed. It had been looking as if the red-blooded American musical would succumb to fatal anemia before the century's end. What had the form mustered up the last several years? Puppet shows, pageants, textbook anthologies of past hits and dour civics lessons. If you wanted that blissful adrenaline kick that was once the genre's hallmark, you bought tickets to the revitalizing Encores series of vintage musicals in concert at City Center.
In literal terms, of course, ''Contact'' isn't at all in the tradition of the shows seen at Encores. A theatrical portfolio of three seemingly unrelated vignettes set in different time periods, it has no original score, using instead an ingeniously selected medley of recordings ranging from Bizet to the Beach Boys. Mr. Weidman's script is agile and clever, but most of the narrative burden rests on the choreography.
Yet ''Contact'' fills the same emotional needs once served by the sassy conventional book musicals of the 1930's and their more sentimental descendants of the 40's and 50's. It converts the messy daily ingredients of sexual attraction and conflict into something as smoothly sweet and tart as a Key lime pie. Both the intoxication of love and the hangover of loneliness are given idealized, elegant form. Like the most satisfying kinds of escapism, ''Contact'' weaves romance from a reality we are all familiar with.
In this musical universe, anxious, fumbling klutzes walk into fantasies in which they acquire the physical eloquence of Fred and Ginger, in dances that define character with the conversational ease that Ms. Stroman brought to Trevor Nunn's first-rate revival of ''Oklahoma!'' in London. And when the klutzes in question are embodied by Karen Ziemba and Boyd Gaines, who in separate segments give the performances of their careers, the transitions acquire a psychological steam that is as affecting as it is entertaining.
This metamorphosis is most pointedly achieved in the playlet that gives ''Contact'' its umbrella title, the evening's longest segment and its entire second act. In it, Mr. Gaines plays Michael Wiley, a successful advertising executive who feels that life is a party to which he hasn't been invited.
The show begins with a robustly satiric scene in which a drunken Michael accepts yet another Clio award, after which he goes to his Manhattan apartment to kill himself. Somehow he winds up instead in a pool hall that becomes a swing dance club at night, and there he inevitably meets the woman of his dreams, a statuesque knockout and swing queen who is identified simply as the Girl in the Yellow Dress (Deborah Yates). There's only one problem: Michael can't dance.
On one level, this playlet recalls Gene Kelly's great danced film noir spoof in ''Singin' in the Rain,'' with Ms. Yates substituted for Cyd Charisse, the mystery woman who ''came at me in sections'' in the movie. But ''Contact'' also has a pulsing urban anxiety, a feeling of being alone in a crowd that will be familiar to anyone who has ever spent time in a singles bar with nothing to talk to but his glass and the bartender (given quirkily appealing life here by Jason Antoon, of the undulating eyebrows).
Mr. Gaines's preternaturally blue eyes seem electrified by both timidity and painful desire as the dancers around him merge into an excluding orgy of synchronized movements that bring a cocky, contemporary sting to classic swing. It hurts to identify with him and it's impossible not to.
The process of Michael's finding his feet provides deep vicarious satisfaction. Mr. Gaines, who is not a professional dancer, makes whatever tentativeness he's feeling in the part work like gangbusters. He turns in the top-drawer performance you wish he had given in ''Company.''
Ms. Yates has the daunting assignment of incarnating the woman whom every man wants, and remarkably that is exactly how she comes across. She's not only dangerously beautiful, suggesting a razor-edged Grace Kelly; she also has an exquisite balletic poise and extensions to die for. She can act, too, projecting the requisite fire of wistfulness beneath the icy exterior. A pinup girl for straight men in a New York musical: who would have thought it?
The dancers who make up the ensemble in the swing club are much more than background. Though they move with coordinated precision in Ms. Ziemba's exuberant routines, which evoke the vibrancy and varied vocabulary of Jerome Robbins's work on Broadway, each performer registers with a firm stamp of individuality.
Even without lines to speak, they're all distinct personalities, evident in William Ivey Long's characterful costumes. The attention to detail throughout this episode is delicious, by the way, with Thomas Lynch (sets) and Peter Kaczorowski (lighting) making most inventive use of the color yellow, whose appearance signals the opening of that particular stairway to paradise that only musicals can build.
If Mr. Gaines represents the lost soul in search of his rhythm in life, the three characters in the felicitously titled ''Swinging,'' the vignette that opens the show, would seem to feel no such uncertainty. Inhabiting Mr. Lynch's and Mr. Long's sumptuous re-creation of Fragonard's painting ''The Swing,'' an aristocratic young man and woman (Scott Taylor and Stephanie Michels) and a studly servant (Sean Martin Hingston) perform a rococo mating ritual in which all involved would seem to know their respective moves in advance.
Or do they? Without breaking the tempo set by the swing of the title, variations do occur, including one startling role reversal. ''Swing,'' which is both the evening's iciest and most erotically explicit episode, is more of a gimmick than the others, but it is executed to sly perfection by its trio of dancers.
It's a provocative curtain raiser, and by the evening's end, you see how it fits into the show's context as a study in confinement and escape. The selection of Stephane Grappelli's jazz take on Rodgers and Hart's ''My Heart Stood Still,'' over a period-appropriate harpsichord piece, is dead on, a canny mirror of the vignette's improvisations within a fixed form.
Then there is ''Did You Move?,'' which closes the first act with its own piquant blend of wistfulness and exhilaration. The setting is now an Italian restaurant in the 1950's. Enter a thuglike man (Mr. Antoon), exhaling machismo and menace, and his submissive and terrified wife (Ms. Ziemba).
While the husband stalks the buffet, we are escorted into the mind of Ms. Ziemba's cowed character in reveries in which she becomes a prima ballerina, turning every prop, patron and employee in the restaurant into part of the grand mise en scene. (The excellent David MacGillivray is the headwaiter who metamorphoses into Ms. Ziemba's passionate partner.) Once again, you're astonished by the clear, distinct presence of every performer on stage, each of whom hints at a myriad of untold stories.
Moving to triumphant orchestral strains from Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Bizet, Ms. Ziemba's graceless wife assumes instant, effortless grace of the highest order. The appeal of this fine actress-dancer has always lain in the contrast between her aura of apple pie normalcy and prodigious technical skills. Here that opposition becomes the very point of ''Did You Move?'' Ms. Ziemba projects a madcap self-delight that brings to mind the Lucille Ball of ''I Love Lucy'' and implicitly suggests just how subversive the zany sitcom heroines of that repressed era were.
''Contact'' deserves the larger audiences and the Tony nominations that a move to a Broadway house would allow, but there will inevitably be some sacrifice in losing the intimacy of the Newhouse, where you somehow feel personally involved with each performer.
The rapturous gleam of surprise flashed by Ms. Ziemba as she sails into a jete; the startled smile that sneaks over Mr. Gaines's features when his feet catch up with his mind: glance around you, and you'll see similar expressions on the faces of the theatergoers.
''Contact'' achieves what few musicals do these days: a sense of euphoric connection between the audience and what is happening on the stage. To dance is to live in Ms. Stroman's world. ''Contact'' lets you feel that you've joined that dance.
"Contact," the musical sensation of the fall theater season, may just turn out to be the musical sensation of the spring season as well. This inventive dance play by John Weidman and Susan Stroman has made a terrific transition to Broadway. Watching the dancers swirl and dive around the Vivian Beaumont Theater's circular stage, you can only wonder how a show of such glorious kinetic and emotional amplitude could possibly have squeezed itself into the tiny Mitzi Newhouse below. Once upon a time "Contact" delighted; now it dazzles. Once it touched the heart; now it nearly breaks it.
The transformation has much to do with the show's cast. All of them are first-rate dancing actors, but with maybe a dozen lines of dialogue and a mere half-hour onstage, Karen Ziemba is now giving a breathtaking performance, one of the finest currently to be seen on a New York stage.
She stars in the second of the evening's three vignettes, as a timid 1950s housewife who's pathetically excited at the prospect of a dinner out at an Italian restaurant in Queens with her menacing lout of a husband. The history of a thousand miserable marriages is written on Ziemba's face, as her character's idle, nervous chatter is greeted with grunts of disgust. The pained smiles she flashes at the waiters are both apologies and signals of deep distress.
When her husband stalks off to go in search of dinner rolls -- "Don't fuckin' move!," he darkly admonishes her -- this woman's constricted heart explodes in a fantastic rush, her body takes flight in a tragicomic ballet. As she whirls around the restaurant, her skirt bubbling giddily around her, her limbs move with a freedom and grace that's in crazy contrast to the birdlike way she picked at her food in her husband's presence.
Clearly inspired by Stroman's exuberantly witty choreography, Ziemba gives literal meaning to the phrase "dancing like a dream," as waiters and busboys take on the grand manners of tango partners and danseurs nobles. Her character's smiles of gleeful surprise at her body's hitherto unknown capabilities bring a tear to the eye, as does the sequence's bitterly sad finale, when this housewife must return to her linoleum reality, her husband glowering cruelly at her attempt to share the pleasure that has so suddenly filled her heart. Ziemba's dancing is wonderful, but her performance is equally fine in repose: The mixture of joy and anguish on her face as the lights fade is indescribably moving -- a real and rare acting miracle.
In the last and longest vignette, about a suicidal ad exec who finds reason to live in the image of a beautiful blonde, Boyd Gaines' performance has likewise grown in stature. Stroman's choreography for the dance sequences at a downtown swing club, where Gaines' Michael Wiley falls under the spell of his mysterious beauty, is smart, sexy and enthralling, but her farcical staging of Wiley's botched suicide attempt is an equally fine accomplishment. Gaines performs it with unerring comic panache, lunging woozily around his minimalist apartment with a balletic fluidity. Like Ziemba's, Gaines' drawn, hollow face tells its own desperate story.
Nor should Weidman's contributions to the evening be slighted. His witty, economical scenarios are the yeast that allows the evening to rise so fluidly from very simple emotional situations. Although the denouement to the last tale can be predicted, it has a pleasing element of everyday magic in it. Gaines and Deborah Yates, a statuesque dancer who plays the long-limbed beauty of Mr. Wiley's dreams, perform Weidman's final pas de deux of words with the same emotional accuracy they bring to Stroman's wordless ones.
Also accurate and elegant are the costumes of William Ivey Long, which expertly move from the Fragonard-colored silks of the bawdy curtain raiser, "The Swing," to the more minimalist glamour of Yates' thigh-skimming yellow chiffon dress. Thomas Lynch's sets are likewise sleek and accomplished, and the unifying motif of a statue of a cherub with his finger held to his lips, enjoining silence, is still charming. There's a reason, after all, that the "dream ballet" was once a standard element of Broadway musicals. Reality trudges along to a soundtrack of everyday conversation; fantasy dances to private music. "Contact" magically marries the two, and in the process sends the audience out into the real world turning emotional pirouettes inside.