Let’s call it “So You Think You Can Step It Up and Dance Your Ass Off With the Stars of America’s Best Dance Crew.” While ballroom blitz “Burn the Floor” has been touring internationally for 10 years, its arrival on Broadway clearly aims to cash in on the resurgent popularity of dance on television reality shows. But if you’re going to invade the turf of Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins and Michael Bennett, you need to bring something beyond adrenaline and aggressive sizzle. Something like grace, style or wit. While there’s only about 15 ounces of collective body fat onstage, there’s also about 15 ounces of imagination.
The show’s most ostentatious bid to ride the TV wave is its recruitment of “Dancing With the Stars” judge Carrie Ann Inaba as a producer, and of Karina Smirnoff and Maksim Chmerkovskiy, two of that show’s regular professional dancers, as special guests for the first three weeks of the 12-week New York engagement. The fact that America is on first-name terms with Karina and Maks, a couple onscreen and off, is some indication of the feverish following dance competitions have generated.
But the duo is both an asset and a burden to “Burn the Floor.” They are dazzling to watch, but superior on so many levels to the other robotic performers onstage that you wait impatiently for them to resurface in another routine. Their moves are more defined; they have star quality, a sense of humor and genuine chemistry.
Not that the other nine couples, plucked from the international championship ranks of ballroom dance, aren’t impressive. They sweat up a storm, gyrate and vibrate at warp speed throughout the juiced-up production. But even when they’re gliding across the floor in a Fred-and-Ginger homage, the dancing is effortful — more athletic than fluid or expressive. Passion often comes across as hostility, suggesting the kind of crazed determination you’re more likely to find in a wrestling match than on a dance floor.
Serenity and poise barely get a look in before sexually charged attitude, whip-pan head moves, hair-tossing and booty-popping take over again with numbing repetitiveness. It’s as if the cast is auditioning for “Showgirls: The Musical.” (If only.) Dancing on air this is not.
Directed and choreographed by former “Burn” ensemble member Jason Gilkison, the show whirls through the 10 standard disciplines of ballroom, initially in a dance-through-the-ages sequence that segues from “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” into Shirley Bassey/Propellerheads number “History Repeating.” But those 10 basics — waltz, foxtrot, Viennese waltz, tango, quickstep, cha cha, samba, paso doble, rumba and jive — all tend to blur into one when performed with the same hyper-accelerated flamenco intensity. There’s so much random cross-pollination among styles, and so many garish theatricalized flourishes, that technique and subtlety disappear along with modulation.
Among the more unfortunate routines is a number featuring a single blindfolded female dancer being tossed around by a group of shirtless guys, a cheesy sex fantasy that plays like camp without irony. Many of the visual correlations are beyond elementary: The paso doble as a bullfight?
Generally, the show is more convincing in exuberant than sultry or dramatic mode. The jive, lindy and swing sequence near the close of act one stirs some excitement and gives the dancers some freedom to express a personality (American Giselle Peacock is a firecracker), as does the infectious cha cha of the finale, “Turn the Beat Around.” There’s also a frenzied “Proud Mary” that owes much to Tina Turner’s shimmy, right down to the fringed mini-dresses.
However, the songs of female vocalist Rebecca Tapia tend to opt for the same overkill as the dances, with everything from “I Just Want to Make Love to You” to “Nights in White Satin” given similar big, growly treatment. Tapia’s male counterpart, Ricky Rojas, is a touch more restrained. The show employs two percussionists, a horn player and fiddler/guitarist onstage, augmenting canned music played at maximum volume.
Even louder are Janet Hine’s costumes. Based on John Van Gastel’s designs for the show’s earlier incarnations, they favor a lurid, Donatella Versace/Eurotrash aesthetic, with lots of sheer fabrics, skintight trousers and slutty backless prom dresses.
The production manages to be slick and tacky at the same time — it’s a vulgarized dance marathon as ’80s Vegas variety show, lacking only a topless girl in body glitter emerging from a volcano. Still, much of the press-night crowd seemed to eat up every skyward leg extension and death-defying dip. Nobody even appeared to mind the shower of sweat when the dancers hit the aisles. Maybe TV dance fans will flock. Others might require more finesse and less flash in their bend-and-snap.