“Contact,” the musical sensation of the fall theater season, may just turn out to be the musical sensation of the spring season as well. This inventive dance play by John Weidman and Susan Stroman has made a terrific transition to Broadway. Watching the dancers swirl and dive around the Vivian Beaumont Theater’s circular stage, you can only wonder how a show of such glorious kinetic and emotional amplitude could possibly have squeezed itself into the tiny Mitzi Newhouse below. Once upon a time “Contact” delighted; now it dazzles. Once it touched the heart; now it nearly breaks it.
The transformation has much to do with the show’s cast. All of them are first-rate dancing actors, but with maybe a dozen lines of dialogue and a mere half-hour onstage, Karen Ziemba is now giving a breathtaking performance, one of the finest currently to be seen on a New York stage.
She stars in the second of the evening’s three vignettes, as a timid 1950s housewife who’s pathetically excited at the prospect of a dinner out at an Italian restaurant in Queens with her menacing lout of a husband. The history of a thousand miserable marriages is written on Ziemba’s face, as her character’s idle, nervous chatter is greeted with grunts of disgust. The pained smiles she flashes at the waiters are both apologies and signals of deep distress.
When her husband stalks off to go in search of dinner rolls — “Don’t fuckin’ move!,” he darkly admonishes her — this woman’s constricted heart explodes in a fantastic rush, her body takes flight in a tragicomic ballet. As she whirls around the restaurant, her skirt bubbling giddily around her, her limbs move with a freedom and grace that’s in crazy contrast to the birdlike way she picked at her food in her husband’s presence.
Clearly inspired by Stroman’s exuberantly witty choreography, Ziemba gives literal meaning to the phrase “dancing like a dream,” as waiters and busboys take on the grand manners of tango partners and danseurs nobles. Her character’s smiles of gleeful surprise at her body’s hitherto unknown capabilities bring a tear to the eye, as does the sequence’s bitterly sad finale, when this housewife must return to her linoleum reality, her husband glowering cruelly at her attempt to share the pleasure that has so suddenly filled her heart. Ziemba’s dancing is wonderful, but her performance is equally fine in repose: The mixture of joy and anguish on her face as the lights fade is indescribably moving — a real and rare acting miracle.
In the last and longest vignette, about a suicidal ad exec who finds reason to live in the image of a beautiful blonde, Boyd Gaines’ performance has likewise grown in stature. Stroman’s choreography for the dance sequences at a downtown swing club, where Gaines’ Michael Wiley falls under the spell of his mysterious beauty, is smart, sexy and enthralling, but her farcical staging of Wiley’s botched suicide attempt is an equally fine accomplishment. Gaines performs it with unerring comic panache, lunging woozily around his minimalist apartment with a balletic fluidity. Like Ziemba’s, Gaines’ drawn, hollow face tells its own desperate story.
Nor should Weidman’s contributions to the evening be slighted. His witty, economical scenarios are the yeast that allows the evening to rise so fluidly from very simple emotional situations. Although the denouement to the last tale can be predicted, it has a pleasing element of everyday magic in it. Gaines and Deborah Yates, a statuesque dancer who plays the long-limbed beauty of Mr. Wiley’s dreams, perform Weidman’s final pas de deux of words with the same emotional accuracy they bring to Stroman’s wordless ones.
Also accurate and elegant are the costumes of William Ivey Long, which expertly move from the Fragonard-colored silks of the bawdy curtain raiser, “The Swing,” to the more minimalist glamour of Yates’ thigh-skimming yellow chiffon dress. Thomas Lynch’s sets are likewise sleek and accomplished, and the unifying motif of a statue of a cherub with his finger held to his lips, enjoining silence, is still charming. There’s a reason, after all, that the “dream ballet” was once a standard element of Broadway musicals. Reality trudges along to a soundtrack of everyday conversation; fantasy dances to private music. “Contact” magically marries the two, and in the process sends the audience out into the real world turning emotional pirouettes inside.