Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
The American Dance Machine's innovative sampling of dance routines from musical shows, which began a month-long engagement at Fords Theatere Sunday night, makes for a likeable and diverting evening in the theater.
Just how diverting may well depend on how strongly you're addicted to hoofing and the mystique it seems to generate. A smasheroo this is not, and in some respects the idea of the production is more gratifying than the production itself. Nevertheless, if your expectations don't greatly outstrip the limitations of the format, chances are you'll enjoy yourself.
The guiding concept behind the American Dance Machine - the lovingly tended brainchild of former dancer-choreographer Lee Becker Theodore - was the creation of a "living archive of Broadway-theater dance." Now, there's little question that such an archive, by documenting a significant but extremely perishable segment of American popular culture, would be rendering a valuable and even imperative scholarly service. Nor is there any doubt that the founding of the ADM, with its complementary research, reconstruction and preservation activities, goes a long way toward making that service accessible to all.
But none of this answers the question of whether or not it will fly as a commercial stage enterprise, and on this account the present production leaves the matter moot.
As an opening program, the ADM has put together 15 dance numbers, ranging from sentimental to silly, sexy to sly, and covering the three decades of musicals between "Carousel" and "Bubbling Brown Sugar."
Part of the problem is that these dances were all designed to function in particular ways within a larger whole - a complete show. Lifted from such surroundings, they not only tend to lose most of their dramatic rationale, but also to disclose choreographic frailties that might otherwise go unnoticed. One also begins to recognize the skimpiness of the music to which these numbers were set, with rare exception. It dawns on one, too, in watching the ADM go through its paces, that dance "hit," no less than songs, are tremendously dependent upon distinctive dance personalities - the magic of a Verdon, or Bolger, or Rivera.
The evening's solorists - Janet Eibler Swen Swenson and Barry Preston - are all skilled and personable performers, but none of them is in the show-stopping league. THe one who came closest to that mark was Harold Cromer, of the Hoofers troupe, who was given a brief but delightful song-and-dance stint, a tribute to Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, as a kind of post-intermission encore. The rest of the company, assembled for some reason within the past two weeks, looks able but unremarkable.
The live program notes provided by Alexis Smith do little more than allow time for costume changes. And the shoestring pit band and lack of sets don't improve things much. Ultimately, however, the crucial missing ingredient is choreography of lasting distinction - Ron Field's Telephone Dance from "Cabaret" and Agnes de Mille's mini-dramas from "Brigadoon" were the only items to fill the bill. Seeing all the others one atop another only served to make cclear that "routine" car be an adjective as well as a noun.