The summer swelter spiked this month with the world premiere of sultry dance musical “Vices: A Love Story” at Florida’s Caldwell Theater. Considering that much of the show was created during the past three weeks in the rehearsal hall, “Vices” is a minor miracle of on-the-fly craftsmanship from a creative team and performers mostly culled from Broadway and Off Broadway.
The show is a sensual celebration tracing the evolution of a 21st-century urban romance, with a sketchy book by Michael Heitzman and Ilene Reid; a score by Heitzman, Reid, Everett Bradley and Susan Draus; and standout choreography by A.C. Ciulla (Tony-nominated for “Footloose”).
The titular vices are compulsions that wound or wreck a relationship: obsessive work, indiscriminate sex, alcoholism and gambling. To encapsulate the obsessive nature of contemporary life, the lovers also are depicted in thrall to decidedly less dramatic vices in satiric songs about chocolate cravings, workouts and texting.
Although it needs work, this production clearly promises a life Off Broadway or in regional theaters able to attract the right terpsichorean talent. Staged by Caldwell chief Clive Cholerton, the string of vignettes is only about 70 minutes long, but the running time feels perfect for the summertime audience’s attention span.
The lovers are silent dancers whose body language and expressive faces are beyond eloquent throughout a series of pas de deux. Their complex inner thoughts are expressed by a Greek chorus of four singers crooning, belting and caressing 20 original numbers, their eclectic styles careening from power ballads to scat to tight vocalise to faux opera to — inexplicably — disco. The heartfelt ballads are lovely, but much of the music and lyrics are intentionally pointillistic to capture the anxiety of urban life, using snatches of words, even vocalizing the clicks of a stock-market tickertape.
The nascent show needs to soften the schizophrenic whiplash between its affecting emotional arc and its frothier comic turns. Sometimes it seems as if the sophistication of “Contact” has been mated with the more prosaic humor of, say, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” One moment, a dancer gravely contemplates how age is affecting her looks; the next, a broad comedy number lampoons plastic surgery.
Sometimes the ambitious diversity in concepts just doesn’t work at all. A breezy number about overloading credit cards is inexplicably written as a waltz and staged with restoration costumes. A number about smoking after sex is written in classic funkadelic and staged as an early “Soul Train” number.
All the individual elements are noteworthy, especially the inventive costumes by Alberto Arroyo, but the tentpole here is Ciulla’s work. Writhing bodies interlock only to break free in leaps and long-limbed extensions. It all echoes modern dance and contemporary ballet with scant hint of Broadway other than a Fred and Ginger homage. The choreographer’s graceful work alternates between the emotional ecstasy of physical passion and the herky-jerky buffeting of human beings in a tempestuous cityscape.
Ciulla’s paintbrushes are jaw-dropping dancers Marcus Bellamy (“Tarzan”) and Holly Shunkey (national tour of “Contact”). In addition to their skill and physical beauty, they invest themselves totally in the acting.
Each singer has a solo moment: Carlos L. Encinas croons a Busby Berkeley paean to chocolate; Lara Janine nails comedy numbers, but her rueful lament “Johnny” is devastating; Natalie Venetia Belcon belts and soars in numbers like “All the Money”; and Leajato Amara Robinson stops the show with the a cappella list song “Some Like It” (as in types of sex), accompanying himself with body-slapping percussion.
But the vocalists’ real strength is how well they meld, as in the bluesy “Temptation.” Credit for that and many other virtues goes to musical director Jon Rose, who fronts a strong band onstage but whose triumph is leading the singers in mastering the fragmentary score and blending martini-smooth harmonies.