What a dazzling mish-mash St. Louis Woman turns out to be—talent strewn all over the place, but so many incoherent ideas and messages and images fighting for your attention that all you can do is fix your eyes and mind on the glorious dancing and try to keep them there. Premiered at the Lincoln Center Festival earlier this month, this version of St. Louis Woman is the latest incarnation of a musical by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer that opened on Broadway in 1946 and quickly flopped. Some years ago, Arthur Mitchell decided that its inviting score (“Come Rain or Come Shine,” “A Woman’s Prerogative”) and its setting in a glamorous black underworld made it a good vehicle for his company, Dance Theatre of Harlem, which is rooted in classical ballet but is adept at projecting all sorts of styles. More so than many other companies, this one deserves to have the word theatre right at the center of its name.
So Mitchell had the right idea. Somewhere along the line, however, his project seems to have run amok. The show’s original time period, 1898, was ditched in favor of what the program insists is 1946, yet nothing in the show evokes the postwar era—certainly not the cakewalk, or the Charleston, or the classic tap routine, or Willa Kim’s chic little dancing dresses, or the Prohibition-type toughs and gamblers with their ladies of the night. Presumably the story (he done her wrong, he pays the price, love conquers all) still takes place in a St. Louis saloon, but the radiant pinks and yellows in Tony Walton’s design, not to mention the Matisse cutouts on the walls, place this particular Missouri somewhere in the south of France. Then there’s the choreography, which Mitchell put in the hands of Michael Smuin. A Broadway veteran (Sophisticated Ladies, Anything Goes) as well as the creator of innumerable deadly ballets, Smuin has come up with an hourlong shlockfest packed to the hilt with arched backs, outflung legs, ardent leaps, and slithery embraces. Think about it: How often do we get to see a bump and grind performed on pointe?
Yet for all the cheap thrills, St. Louis Woman has to be counted a success. The dancing is so classy, and the music so engaging, that this ballet is a pleasure in spite of itself. Caroline Rocher, Tai Jimenez, and Melissa Morrissey are diamond-sharp in the leading women’s roles, throwing their bodies into the music like blazing daggers with perfect aim. The male leads—Donald Williams, Ikolo Griffin, and Preston Dugger—are stuck with choreography even more faceless than the women’s; nonetheless, they tackle it boldly and bring it off with personality. Antonio Douthit has a peculiar assignment: He plays Death, who struts and prances through the show wearing hot pants with silver trim and high white stockings. The look is more Puss in Boots than Grim Reaper; and how on earth to account for that mysterious interlude in which Death dances with six female Acolytes dressed as evil witches and/or underwear models? But back to the success part: Thanks to these stylish, open-hearted performers, and a bouquet of great songs, St. Louis Woman brought down the house and seems likely to do so for many years to come.
There was another triumph during the company’s run at Lincoln Center, this one more substantive, though no fanfare accompanied it. Rounding out a mixed bill was Fancy Free, the well-loved ballet by Jerome Robbins, which has long been in DTH’s repertoire but hadn’t been performed by the company in more than a decade. The moment the curtain went up, that ballet leaped off the stage with more vigor and sass than it’s probably had since its ABT premiere nearly 60 years ago. Dugger, Griffin, and Williams were perfectly in tune as the three buoyant sailors; and Rocher, Kellye A. Saunders, and Leanne Codrington were the jaunty girls. Robbins was an awfully hard guy to please, but even he must have been smiling.