Dance Theater of Harlem could have a breakout hit with this splashy new ballet inspired by the 1946 musical with a heavenly Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer score. The ballet, making its world premiere at the Lincoln Center Festival, occasioned long lines at the box office — and a late curtain time to accommodate the rush on tickets — for the last of its four perfs. It will surely be the headliner at the company’s next Manhattan season.
A handful of Broadway regulars collaborated to give the production a dazzling polish. Tony Walton devised the snazzy nightclub set, inspired by Matisse’s late works. Willa Kim clad the dancers in flouncy and spirited period duds, whites trimmed with splashes of bright pink and green and blue. Lighting aces Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer bathed the whole in matching candy colors.
Subtitle notwithstanding, the ballet has little to do with the blues proper, although Arlen’s affection for the form does course through his delicious score. (The ballet’s creators don’t confine themselves to the Arlen-Mercer songs from “St. Louis Woman”; the show opens to the strains of “Blues in the Night,” for example.) The concept, by Jack Wrangler and choreographer Michael Smuin, retains the musical’s racetrack setting and central characters but reduces its plot to a simple tale of love and betrayal.
Della Green, danced with flashy flair by Caroline Rocher, is the hot number who stirs up the trouble. Biglow Brown (Donald Williams) is the heavy who owns the nightclub in which the action takes place. He tosses aside his g.f. Lila, the silken Tai Jiminez, when Della catches his eye, but Della soon turns the tables on him when she takes a shine to cocky jockey Little Augie (Ikolo Griffin, with a great leap). Make way for bad news, somewhat portentously foreshadowed by the flitting figure of Death, powerfully danced by Antonio Douthit.
Smuin doesn’t spend much time establishing details of character or plot; the ballet unfolds as a series of smooth or steamy pas de deux for its central characters. The former head of the San Francisco Ballet, Smuin is a skilled choreographer who shapes his dances cannily to Arlen’s softly rocking songs and soaring ballads, some of which are sung by an onstage trio. The classically derived choreography is not, as dramatic dance, inspired, but Smuin adds some inventive touches in the partnering that enliven the proceedings: Rocher ends one duet wrapped around Williams’ haunches, her legs shooting skyward, her hat scraping the ground. Jiminez gives the most dramatically powerful performance, and her emotional pas de deux with Williams is the evening’s most potent moment.
The audience lapped it up heartily, buoyed by the enchantments of some of Arlen and Mercer’s finest songs: “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home,” “I Had Myself a True Love.” But the ballet is about 15 minutes too long. The essential action concludes with a violent death, but the ballet continues with an extraneous tap number and an uninspired finale for the ensemble. Better to conclude on a dramatic note — and one more befitting the show’s designation as a “blues ballet” — than dissipate the evening’s allure with such flashy but unnecessary appendixes.