The connection of music to memory is central to John Doyle’s daringly conceived but singularly morose “Ten Cents a Dance,” a musical revue set to Rodgers and Hart songs making its preem at the Williamstown Theater Festival prior to a run at New Jersey’s McCarter Theater starting Sept. 9. Memory steeped in regret, loss and loneliness may add up to an elegant, elegiac evening for those yearning for a good old-fashioned wallow, but this moody haunt may be disappointing to those wanting a bit of joy — or at least more color — in their look-backs.
In the mist of memory — literally, the audience enters a mist-filled theater — a middle-age man (Malcolm Gets) descends a towering spiral staircase. He is sad, troubled, perhaps shamed. He takes in the gray abstract setting (Scott Pask at his most darkly suggestive) as if it were the scene of a distant crime. He approaches a piano warily.
He finally succumbs to its temptation — and comfort — and slowly begins to plunk out the melody to “Blue Moon.” The notes trigger the arrival down the staircase of five women of various ages, all similarly bewigged and dressed (not too wisely by the usually impeccable Ann Hould-Ward),
For the next 75 minutes, more than 30 songs by Rodgers and Hart speak for the man and his memories. There is no dialogue and all the emotions, relationships and even snatches of narrative are derived through the score and its sophisticated, double-edged lyrics.
Clearly, this once-sparkling love has been tarnished as the women (sometimes singing in solidarity, sometimes in counterpoint) express themselves with anger, wistfulness, sarcasm, hurt and, on the rare occasion, recollection of good times.
It’s an intriguing premise, one that Doyle first worked out in the UK in a 2002 production. When it connects it works incredibly well, showing how songs can mean different things to different people at different stages in their lives.
Watch Donna McKechnie as the oldest of the five “Miss Jones” (of the song “Have You Met Miss Jones,” natch) sing “Isn’t It Romantic” — she performs it from the perspective of a woman who has seen all sides of a romance. But when Lauren Molina as the first Miss Jones shares the song, it’s dewy-eyed and slightly naive. It’s a parallel universe moment where you expect “Follies” ghosts to start coming down the stairs, too.
Doyle, who has proved adept at multiple layering with Sondheim’s music in the Rialto’s “Sweeney Todd” and “Company,” finds a rich source with Rodgers and Hart as well. As in the Sondheim revivals, the performers here play their own instruments, expressing themselves also through their own musical accompaniment. But due to the need for multiple skills in perfs, vocal quality is often compromised and one longs for some more assured singing. (Gets is always solid.)
In the end, show’s conciliation comes in a modest gesture (again, the warm and wise McKechnie). This one touch may be well-placed, but for many it won’t be enough for a show that, despite some genuine moments of theatrical inspiration, is more bitter than sweet. Songs: “Blue Moon,” “Little Girl Blue,” “A Blue Room,” “Have You Met Miss Jones,” “Poor Johnny One Note,” “Isn’t It Romantic,” “My Romance,” “You’re Nearer,” “There’s a Small Hotel,” “Where or When,” “Falling in Love With Love,” “My Funny Valentine,” “If They Asked Me I Could Write a Book,” “It Never Entered My Mind, We’ll Have Manhattan,” “Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered,” “Sing for Your Supper,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” “It’s Got to Be Love,” “To Keep My Love Alive,” “This Can’t Be Love,” “My Heart Stood Still,” “Nobody’s Heart Belongs to Me,” “With a Song in My Heart,” “Thou Swell,” “He Was Too Good to Me,” “At the Roxy Music Hall,” “Dancing on the Ceiling,” “Ten Cents a Dance,” “Quiet Night,” “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.”