Featuring: Angelo Fraboni, Robert Mirabal, Hawk Pope, Peter Buffett.
With: Terra Lynn Arlington, Ted Banfalvi, Jay Barrett, Leah Bender, Connie Danforth, Keiko Davis, Kristen Dinsmore, Tish Edens, Chad Hamill, John Jacquet, Kristopher Jones, Richard Kim, Michael Kott, Ahsinees P. Larson, Allison Leo, Doug Lunn, Reynaldo Lujan, Maria Mahkimetas, Peter Maunu, Mike Peltier, Dawn Noel Pignuola, Marty Pinnecoose, William Pyawasit, Lloyd Yellowbird, Claudia Skenandore, Curt Summers, Keri Tkacz, Ron Todorowski, Even Trujilo, Dana Warrington, Brooke Wendle, Edward Willett, Kurt Wortman, Cortney Yarholar.
When Green Bay, Wis., gave birth last summer to the Native American entertainment hybrid formerly known as “Spirit,” this high-concept production lacked narrative cohesion and visual unity, and was full of long, boring stretches of instrumental music. But the creative team has clearly listened to critics, and the new “Spirit: A Journey in Dance, Drums and Song” has gone through a transformation far more profound than a mere title change.
This sometimes uneasy fusion of Native American music and dance with mainstream rock is unlikely ever to be a favorite of Gotham’s legit critics, and old-time road subscribers will need earplugs. But producer Peter Holmes a Court has successfully forged a slick and vibrant touring entertainment that will appeal to the kind of Boomer crossover crowd usually found at Mannheim Steamroller or Emerson, Lake and Palmer concerts.
A savvy and intriguing Native American riff on “Riverdance,” the show could do well at the road box office and/or end up at a Las Vegas casino, where it would be a natural and probably lucrative fit. Broadway — where the show is apparently bound — is a more risky proposition.
The most important improvements are the foregrounding of Wayne Cilento’s choreography and a change in the arrangement of Peter Buffett’s music so that it features a far more percussive — and thus far more theatrical — sensibility. Whereas Buffett’s hunched body at the keyboard was once perpetually bathed in lights, he now takes his place alongside the other musicians accompanying what is, rightfully, a dance-driven show. When you’re not forced to look at the composer all night, Buffett’s soundtrack becomes far more appealing.
There is no dialogue and little narrative arc: The unnamed central character is an uptight fellow in a city environment who is longing to free the latent Native American in his soul. Native American performers and a troupe of multiracial dancers “teach” the man how to substitute spiritual health for cell phones and a free soul for buttoned-down collars.
Oozing gravitas, Chief Hawk Pope intones Native American truths into a microphone, and Cilento’s Broadway-style chorus boogies to some hot Buffett numbers along the merry way. By any standards, Cilento’s disparate choreographic stylings are arresting, and when the beautifully costumed performers fill the stage with musical energy, the show is a veritable feast for the eyes and ears.
More can be done in the coming weeks. The lead character, played by Angelo Fraboni, still needs more of a palpable emotional life, and a bunch of sloppy guys with drums drag down the energy whenever they show up. Chief Hawk Pope could also enliven his delivery.
This is not an easy piece to sell in urban legit markets like Chicago. Unlike “Riverdance,” “Spirit” cannot rely on a core legit audience ready to translate ethnic identification into box office coin. But if Holmes a Court can manufacture buzz (and few do it better), “Spirit’s” journey may well end in considerable profits.