With The Lullaby of Broadway, Charleston Ballet Theatre has set itself a challenge. How can it possibly encapsulate the Technicolor splendor of Broadway and Hollywood musicals in a small black box space?
The audience’s memories of Broadway hits might help to fill in some gaps, but recapturing the rest requires youthful energy, clever costume design, flamboyant dance moves. and an appreciation of timeless tunes. CBT provides just that, performing to songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, John Kander and Leonard Bernstein.
This isn’t the most polished show the company’s ever done but that’s only because of the ambition of one of the pieces. A number of dancers are given a chance to excel, and the homages to Busby Berkeley-style choreography never descend to cliché.
The show opens with “Cabaret.” Stephen Gabriel is a lip-synching MC dressed in silver tails, eyes wide with excitement at the thought of what’s in store. He’s backed by an elegant chorus line in black dresses. Some dancers are more supple than others, but they all danced in time for a powerful opening.
After “Cabaret,” the next major number is “Nothing Like a Dame” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. In this all-male sequence, six sailors dance despite the constrictions of their jeans in arrangements as tight as their white T-shirts. As with most of the dances, this one is mimed, with the sailors outlining their favored feminine shapes. For the sake of equality, the men do their own version of chorus line high kicks at the end.
Stephen Gabriel returns for another superb turn in “Shall We Dance” from The King and I, with Jessica Roan as I. like the sailors in “Dame,” Roan wears a costume that looks tough to dance in (a wide red dress with bloomers, petticoats, and high heels), but she glides effortlessly in contrast to Gabriel’s purposefully studied strutting and bending. Both dancers embody the characters from the show as they mime along to the music and lyrics.
The most complex section – and the true climax of the show – is the brassy “42nd Street,” complete with Berkeleyesque formations, false endings, and snatches of other tunes (Porter’s “Another Opening, Another Show” and “Too Darn Hot”). It’s here that the company overreaches itself – the dancing isn’t as fluid as it could be, and at one point a lead dancer bumps into another’s arm – not what we’re used to from the highly professional CBT.
In this kind of celebratory show, the shortest, most energetic dances are the most effective. Rather than giving the audience a breather from the furious pace with a slower number, Resident Choreographer Jill Eathorne Bahr keeps building the momentum throughout. Like the frenetic set pieces of Broadway’s golden oldies, this production is primed to set any musical lover’s pulse pounding.