Love of ballet flows from every pore and plie of “Little Dancer.” The new Kennedy Center musical showcases most rewardingly the technical gifts of Tiler Peck, a beguiling New York City Ballet star cast here as the gamine model for the celebrated Degas sculpture of the show’s title.
That ardor for the dance form and its classical rigor are filtered through the becoming choreography of director Susan Stroman, who, in the footsteps of Agnes de Mille and Jerome Robbins, has created as a finale for this musical — still, it seems, deeply in progress — a delightful dream ballet, with Peck at its center.
But musical theater doesn’t live by dance alone. In many of its other particulars — having to do with plotting, character development and expressing interior life through song — “Little Dancer” feels as if it has only scratched the surface of possibility of its story, about the hopes of a talented young dancer, both immortalized and dashed on an artist’s pedestal. So Stroman, composer Stephen Flaherty and book and lyrics writer Lynn Ahrens would seem to have more work to do if “Little Dancer” is to sweep out the cliches and present itself as more than just another pretty face.
The venture is an intriguing one-off for the Kennedy Center: an original musical produced entirely by the institution and conceived under its past president, Michael M. Kaiser. Having recruited a top-tier assortment of Broadway pros — other major roles are filled by Boyd Gaines, Karen Ziemba and Rebecca Luker, and the designers include William Ivey Long (costumes) and Beowulf Boritt (sets) — Kaiser put this project on a promising path, and on a scale of ambition commensurate with the center’s place in the arts ecosystem.
The results in the Eisenhower Theater — where, after a nearly four-week preview period, the show officially opened Thursday night — reveal a fairly pedestrian tale, buoyed at times by a romantic musicality redolent of Belle Époque Paris and a smart, eye-catching design. The towering, rotating panels of Boritt’s set resemble artists’ stretched canvases, on which projection designer Benjamin Pearcy splashes a changing pattern of vibrant, colliding colors, enhanced by Ken Billington’s lighting. (This is, after all, the age of impressionism.) Long, too, is entirely in his element here, dreaming up outfits for the women worthy of Toulouse-Lautrec’s vision of the Moulin Rouge, as well as tutus for the dancers that give them the air of soignée sprites.
As the show is inspired by an object, albeit a dazzling one — the expressive Edgar Degas sculpture whose original wax version is in the National Gallery of Art — the show’s creators had a formidable assignment: making a statue breathe. To do so, Stroman, Ahrens and Flaherty used the mysterious fate of Marie van Goethem, the Paris Opera Ballet student who posed for Degas, as the linchpin of their musical. The insufficiency of the exploration of Marie, however, is the show’s biggest weakness.
If another musical tale set in the impressionist era, James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George,” is about the relationship between an artist and his painting, “Little Dancer” is the story of an artist and his subject. Marie is such a vital character that she has been split in two here: At the beginning of the musical, an older, sadder Marie, portrayed (and sung lusciously) by Luker, visits Degas’s atelier just after he has died, in hopes of seeing the artwork. It’s this scene that triggers the musical’s warmest, most memorable melody, “C’est le Ballet,” but also triggers the question that dogs the entire evening: Why exactly does Adult Marie keep popping up?
We will, eventually, get an answer, but in the interim, Adult Marie feels less like a person than a narrative device, and why and what she’s remembering, and for whom, are lost in the onrush of subplots and pirouettes. The story of her younger, more carefree self, embodied by Peck, unfolds more concretely. The impoverished Marie is competing with richer girls for a featured role in the latest Paris Opera Ballet production and trying to provide for her little sister (Sophia Anne Caruso) and alcoholic mother (Ziemba, agile as always).
Peck’s Marie is a little sunnier than might be expected of a girl who has known hardship; there’s a beaming indefatigability about her that reminds you of Annie Warbucks or a Disney heroine. More oddly, though, among the show’s two dozen songs, none is a number that lets us inside Young Marie’s thoughts. Why does she so desperately want to dance? How does she feel about the handsome street singer (Kyle Harris) hanging around, forever seeming ready to burst into “On the Street Where You Live”? Why does she risk her ballet career by sneaking off to pose for Degas? An idea suggests itself: Maybe Luker is there to interpret Young Marie’s feelings in song and Peck, in dance. It proves an idle notion.
A lack of development also afflicts the bond between Marie and Degas, played by an impressively crusty and, owing to the artist’s failing eyesight, short-fused Gaines. Not until late in the second act and the song “A Box of Things” are they accorded a duet of any moment. The withholding inclination of this show unreasonably restricts our access to the characters, leaving us waiting in vain to discover more about them. At the same time, it bogs down an audience in unrewarding side stories, such as the travails of Marie’s older sister Antoinette (Jenny Powers), who escapes penury by attaching herself to a refined Parisian brute (Sean Martin Hingston).
The more finely wrought diversions of “Little Dancer” occur when Stroman and her corps of dancers remind us that this is indeed a musical about ballet. These dance sequences offer the most invigorating exposure in a musical to the beauty of the form since “Billy Elliot.” Stroman’s choreography here betokens the passion for dance she infused so exhilaratingly into “Contact,” her Tony-winning triptych of dance-theater pieces.
Whenever Peck is sent leaping and spinning, it’s as if the hindering tethers on “Little Dancer” come off, too. And the musical is set free.
Music by Stephen Flaherty, book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. Sets, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, William Ivey Long; lighting, Ken Billington; sound, Kai Harada; projections, Benjamin Pearcy; music supervisor, David Loud; orchestrations, Doug Besterman and Larry Hochman; music director, Shawn Gough. With Janet Dickinson, Jolina Javier, Polly Baird, Lyrica Woodruff, Juliet Doherty and Michael McCormick. About 2 hours, 40 minutes. Tickets: $45-$155. Through Nov. 30 at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW, Washington. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.