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London fills its dance card

'Strictly Gershwin' tops list of dazzling productions

What’s in a name? A lot, if London’s “Strictly Gershwin” and “Into the Hoods” are anything to go by.

The former is not just a reminder of Baz Luhrmann‘s zinging movie debut, “Strictly Ballroom,” it’s also a cheeky nod to the BBC’s “Strictly Come Dancing,” in which celebrities team up with professional ballroom dancers, the nation votes and ratings go sky high. No wonder that, ahead of its 12-perf run at the 4,000-seat, in-the-round Royal Albert Hall June 13-22, “Strictly Gershwin” tickets were vanishing. Not bad for dance.

Yes, this assembly of Gershwin’s greatest hits is a dance show, complete with ballerinas on pointe and boys on roller skates — and Fred and Ginger projected on videoscreens, which is one of its many errors. What possessed director-choreographer Derek Deane to dwarf dancers attempting to be persuasive as balletic ballroom stylists with slo-mo footage of dance’s greatest duo above them?

Meanwhile, Barbara Cook is on hand, lending much-needed sophistication and singing four Gershwin numbers. But even she falls victim to split focus.

As ever, Cook tames a full orchestra and holds everyone spellbound in delivering “Someone to Watch Over Me” as a raptly private song of loneliness. But her interpretation is wrecked by Deane’s accompaniment, a Latin-American dance duo zipping about the vast arena flashing smiles of togetherness.

Deane’s ballet sections, especially “An American in Paris” and a bizarrely dull opening comprised of standard ballet-class warm-ups, fail to catch fire. When the show goes for cheese, things cheer up, especially when demon tappers Douglas Mills and Paul Robinson step in.

Anyone who has seen Twyla Tharp‘s “Nine Sinatra Songs” knows you can take ballroom dancing and turn it into something so exhilarating it lifts audiences out of their seats. The strenuous “Strictly Gershwin” wins applause, but there’s a tradeoff: The skein shows off dance goods to a hungry audience, but with no theatrical cohesion.

The highlight? Gareth Valentine‘s rip-roaring musical arrangements. The nadir? One of the onscreen collages patronizingly shows Hollywood’s black performers lumped together in a specialist group.

Unsurprisingly, there is far more black visibility — in the audience as well as onstage — at the hip-hop musical and self-styled urban fairy tale “Into the Hoods,” now playing an open-ended run at Cameron Mackintosh’s Novello Theater.

For all its sneaky title-flirtation with the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine “Into the Woods,” the two actually have nothing in common except the initial setup.

DJ Spinderella is dating Prince, who’s two-timing her with MC Rap-on-Zel, who lives in a high-rise. Lil Red gets a deal with Wolf, a conniving record company exec. Jaxx,meanwhile, facing eviction, does a drug deal with Giant, who lives at the top of the high-rise. Two young kids meet them on a search for an iPod as white as milk, a hoodie as red as blood, a weave as yellow as corn and sneakers as pure as gold.

Neat enough, but seriously undramatic because no one speaks: A voiceover merely outlines the plot, and the cast mimes. This, too, is really a dance show, and that’s where its strengths kick in.

Using recorded music by the likes of Gorillaz, Basement Jaxx, Kanye West, Prince, Black Eyed Peas and even MC Hammer, director-choreographer Kate Prince and her company ZooNation let ‘er rip. The eye-popping athleticism of the breakdancing, head-spinning dancers is knockout, especially from startlingly insouciant Rowen Hawkins as Jaxx and Teneisha Bonner‘s shimmering Spinderella.

Sadly, the choreography doesn’t develop and, becoming too repetitive, the show runs out of steam. Severe trimming would do the material some favors, not least for the target younger audience. A more sympathetic venue would help, too. Rather than being stuck behind a proscenium arch, the show could thrive in a space where it can connect more fully with auds.

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