This 'Scissorhands' Has Legs: Fable Gets a Stage Workout

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 15, 2007

See it for the scissors.

See it for the snow.

But see it also for . . . the shrubbery.

There are loads of decorative details that make Matthew Bourne's "Edward Scissorhands" at the Kennedy Center such a fun, loopily inspired spectacle -- among them the twin bouquets of giant shears that Edward wields (in the place of hands) with so much expressive power, and the periodic snowfall that underscores his joy.

But the topiary trumps all. It is in this garden of magical evergreens where Bourne's disarming, enchanting way with movement is at full throttle. The genius of it is that you needn't be a dance connoisseur to appreciate what Bourne does in this scene, where sweet, misunderstood Edward dreams he has shed his shears (the very ones that have sculpted the surrounding shrubs) and can safely court the girl he loves.

It's part landscaper's hallucination, part "Giselle": Anthropomorphic bushes tumble head over heels, crouch, twist and leap. They're as malleable as clay but as light-footed as ballerinas, and just as well-ordered. They bring the energy and promise of spring -- albeit spring on steroids -- to a winter's tale.

This is why you sit through that bit of slow-moving exposition at the start. For it takes a while for this dance-theater version of the 1990 Tim Burton film to gain traction. The essentials are all here, particularly the character of Edward as the quirky, machine-made castoff whose goodness is appreciated too late, and the serene-seeming suburbia he stumbles into that is simmering with tensions. Edward's arrival is a catalyst on several levels.

But the stage production -- performed by New Adventures, Bourne's London-based company -- doesn't have the film's counterculture zip, its acid-tipped skewering of convention that made it a cult classic. Bourne's account feels unmotivated in parts, perhaps because he was mindful of having to sell it to the more mainstream, monied audience of opera houses, and perhaps because the story is not his own. He had a freer hand with his other works: his hugely successful, Tony-winning "Swan Lake," with its boy birds and a British crown prince of uncertain sexuality, and his other retellings of well-known ballets, including "The Nutcracker" and "Cinderella." These have all been marked by Bourne's fabulously unhinged imagination, the way he has taken painfully familiar music and plunked it into decidedly unfamiliar surroundings, yet also managed to deepen our understanding of the classic themes.

Perhaps because he has had to struggle to find acceptance for his nonverbal, dance-powered theater, Bourne's works have also been marked by sympathy for the outcast, and that thread is what gives his "Scissorhands" strength. If it pokes along while introducing all the characters and establishing the setting, it gathers force as Edward's story develops.

In Bourne's somewhat altered version of the movie plot, Edward is doubly cursed: He bears the burden of being the replacement child for an inventor whose own little boy died (playing with scissors -- never a good idea, just as Mom said). And, now that the old man is scissors-obsessed, he bequeaths his new creation with those unusual, antisocial appendages.

Suburban America is understandably wary of the dangerous-looking Edward (played with wide-eyed sincerity by Sam Archer), though the townsfolk warm up to him when he demonstrates his talent for trimming. Topiary, punk poodles and hairdos ensue. Bourne's choreography for the ensemble dancing is unfailingly brilliant; what's miraculous is how each member of the large cast keeps his or her individuality in the group numbers -- you're not watching an anonymous corps de ballet but a living, breathing group of personalities.

Especially vivid is the backyard-barbecue-turned-dance-party shot through with jitterbugging and rumbas. There's also a distinct undercurrent throughout of "West Side Story," in the hard snap of the dancing, the threatening cool of the neighborhood bad boys, the young love that's not allowed to flourish, and even in Terry Davies's music, which at times brings Leonard Bernstein's majestic jazz score to mind. (Davies was brought in to augment Danny Elfman's hauntingly beautiful melodies from the film.)

A Christmas party takes on the look of an old-fashioned movie musical, though the ecstatic sweep of the swing dancing is pure, gushing, grandeur-loving Bourne. Watch carefully and you'll see how the crowd has taken Edward to heart here, borrowing some of his moves, down to the freewheeling Fred Astaire-style time-step that he dashes off as his inhibitions drop and he feels -- temporarily -- accepted.

But while Edward may yearn to belong, ultimately the world won't let him -- even though, in the end, his incorruptible humanity far outshines his human counterparts'. While small-minded suburbia defines him by his deformity, Bourne shows us what Edward's truly made of, in the simplest and clearest of terms. Edward may be a patchwork of a man, but his heart is complete.

Besides Archer, other memorable performers Tuesday night included Hannah Vassallo as Kim Boggs, Edward's love interest, and Michela Meazza as horny housewife Joyce Monroe. They and their colleagues are very lucky: Bourne choreographs only for his own company, and in an earlier interview he told me he has little desire to work for anyone else. But the greater dance world is withering for lack of talent. Couldn't Bourne be convinced to deliver a few lush one-acts? He is too valuable a choreographer just to catch on the odd tour. Company directors with ambition and taste ought to be sending him valentines now that he's stateside with this tour, on the hopes of luring him into their studios.

Performances continue, with cast changes, through Sunday.

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