Matthew Bourne’s latest piece, which begins its first U.S. tour at St. Paul’s Ordway Center, is a mishmash by design, with allusions to Martha Graham, Groucho Marx, ballet, William Inge, “Grease,” “West Side Story,” classic film noir like “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and even campy ’70s exploitation movies. Oddly, given the too-cute title, the only thing “The Car Man” doesn’t overtly reference is Bizet’s opera — which is maybe just as well, since we’ve all seen too much of “Carmen” over the years. Though Bourne sometimes seems to be throwing things at a wall to see what sticks, there’s also an organizing intelligence behind his work, a stylistic brio that trumps dramatic coherence.
With “The Car Man,” Bourne continues to develop his iconoclastic brand of hybrid dance-theater. It’s neither as abstract as modern dance, nor as literal as a musical, but manages to convey the immediacy of the former and the broad theatricality of the latter. In spirit, at least, the piece seems closest to silent film: The story is communicated entirely through expression and action, with Rodion Shchedrin’s ballet score providing the general emotional timbre. While Bourne’s modus operandi may limit the expressive range available to the cast, “The Car Man” isn’t exactly striving for nuance anyway: It’s mostly a mood-soaked homage to film culture, and, like the classic cars that flank the stage, made more for thrills than transport.
Located in the rural Midwest circa 1960, “The Car Man” affects a sort of picture-postcard Americana — the kind of place one might imagine if one’s only exposure to America was through the movies. Lez Brotherston’s versatile sets are particularly redolent of neorealist film mise-en-scene; there’s a whiff of seductive European sleaziness beneath the grimy facade of American habitats like a road-side diner and garage.
And, indeed, the residents of the play’s small town seem perpetually in heat. Almost at once, these attractive young grease monkeys are crawling all over one another in simulated coitus (with samples of the Twist and the Mashed Potato thrown in for kicks). Indicative of the devil-may-care spirit of Bourne’s choreography is an early pas de deux featuring a cigarette, a witty, rare allusion to “Carmen.”
While all this bumping and grinding sometimes seems unnecessarily overheated, the dancers do generate some real friction. (The cast is virtually identical to that of the London production, but the dancers will alternate roles throughout the U.S. tour). In the title role of a sexy drifter (are drifters ever not sexy?), Ewan Wardrop cuts the figure of a young William Holden by way of “West Side Story”; he’s cool, callow and emotionally available. Although, in general, Bourne’s choreography does less to showcase his female dancers, Saranne Curtin, as the femme fatale love interest, is every bit Wardrop’s equal: There’s a hint of threat in her eager sexuality, like a Bettie Page pin-up sprung to life.
The stand-out of this cast, though, is Will Kemp (a number of the performers will be familiar to Bourne’s fans from the director’s acclaimed “Swan Lake”). Beginning as an anonymous chorus member, Kemp undergoes an onstage transformation into the embodiment of revenge. By the second act, it’s almost as though he’s been replaced by a different actor: His initial nervous energy gives way to a steely self-assurance, which manifests itself in some of the piece’s finest solo numbers.
While generally a handsome, well-paced production, “The Car Man” isn’t perfect: There’s an onstage car chase that seems a virtual non sequitur, and some of the ensemble dances in the second act break the flow as the story races toward its bloody denouement. But Bourne throws such a joyous clutter onstage, and his performers infuse the material with so much physical lyricism, that it’s easy to get taken for the ride.