In 1946 Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen wrote a brilliant, enduring score for the poorly received Broadway musical “St. Louis Woman.” Dance Theater of Harlem has performed an artistic service by integrating the Mercer/Arlen songs into an exciting 60-minute blues ballet. With respectful nods to Rodgers & Hart’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” and the Cyd Charisse/Gene Kelly “Broadway Melody” ballet from “Singin’ in the Rain,” this pulsating, erotic production establishes its own tone through DTH artistic director Arthur Mitchell’s vision, Michael Smuin’s furiously inventive choreography and the uplifting work of its five lead dancers.
“St. Louis Woman” was preceded on the program, the first in the Music Center’s five-program dance series, by Balanchine’s 30-minute “Serenade,” a ballet unveiled in 1934. Although executed with precision and grace by Lenore Pavlakos, Kip Sturm, Akua Parker, Alicia Graf and Sonny Robinson, the classical style, cool, passionless presentation and pale blue costumes and background lacked an organic connection to the evening’s main event. There was a sense of relief when Tony Walton’s color-drenched set and Willa Kim’s vivid costumes flooded the stage and “St. Louis Woman” hurled us into the Rocking Horse Club, a world of gamblers, jockeys and dangerously seductive women.
Jack Wrangler’s adaptation offers a comfortable excuse for terpsichorean conflict. Slick, sleazy Biglow (Donald Williams) and sizzlingly sexy Lila (Tai Jimenez) are a pair until femme fatale Della (Caroline Rocher) invades the premises. Biglow drops Lila with a thud and competes with jockey Little Augie (Ikolo Griffin) for Della’s attentions. When Della favors Augie, violence becomes inevitable, signaled strongly by Death (Ramon Thielen), a figure of muscular menace.
All principals were permitted moments to demonstrate their phenomenal talent. As the rejected Lila, Jimenez wrapped her legs around Williams and demonstrated such supple skill that it was hard to believe he could discard her for someone else. Rocher’s agility (dangled head over heels by Williams) and impeccable technique made her a formidable rival. Williams, swaggering insolently in gaudy black suit with green stripes, conveyed the right low-life audacity as two-timing Biglow.
Streaking across the club like a comet, the cocky and ebullient Griffin, dressed entirely in white, nearly danced off with the show. Thielen was a striking contrast, solid and imposing as Death. His character often seemed extraneous, especially when utilized in a final, unnecessary number, but Thielen danced forcefully enough to overcome the questionable concept.
Mercer’s magnificent lyrics — “Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home,” “Come Rain or Come Shine” — were handicapped by a sound system and balance that rendered too many words inaudible, and vocals by Lenora Zenzalai Helm, Marlon Saunders and Talise Trevigne were capable rather than riveting. Arlen’s melodies were enhanced by Joseph Fields’ rich orchestrations, and lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer brought out the intricate magic of Smuin’s cleverly conceived tangos, cakewalks and Charlestons.