Perhaps it will go down as a fortuitous showbiz coincidence that “Little Dancer Aged 14,” the iconic sculpture by Edgar Degas, inspired three musical-theater stalwarts to join hands — director Susan Stroman and the songwriting team of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. Or perhaps not. But one thing is certain: The new tuner “Little Dancer” debuts at the Kennedy Center abounding with conviction, scintillating elements and issues to address.
The creative team has been eager since 2006 to fashion a dance-based tuner around the story of the famous artwork and the young model selected by the artist from the Paris Opera Ballet, despite obvious risks. They include an original and largely sordid 19th-century story embellishing scantily known facts, the need to blend the worlds of ballet and musical theater with period and contemporary styles, and the absence of a bona fide star, to name three. As an indicator of the challenge, numerous elements of the production were being fine-tuned right up until opening night, which was postponed until week four of a five-week run.
“Dancer” received the greenlight last year from former Kennedy Center president Michael Kaiser, reuniting the facility with its “Ragtime” team of Ahrens and Flaherty. Once again, the center has provided first-rate accommodations, including a lush 19-member orchestra to support a 26-member cast.
Leading the troupe is a trio headed by Tiler Peck, a principal with the New York City Ballet, as the young Marie von Goethem, the dancer plucked by Degas for the life-changing assignment. Rebecca Luker is cast as an adult von Goethem who narrates the tale, while Boyd Gaines plays the tempestuous artist in physical decline.
Stroman set out to emphasize ballet in this production, and she does not disappoint. Dance is front and center throughout, highlighted by Peck’s exceptional technique and the versatile company’s strong support. The undisputed dance highlight is the show’s sensational 11 o’clock number, “The Little Dancer Ballet,” which reprises high and low moments of the plot in a mixture of styles.
Flaherty’s score also offers a blend of contemporary and period melodies. It opens following an introductory scene with one of the show’s strongest numbers, the rousing “C’est the Ballet,” performed backstage at the Paris dance facility in 1880.
The show is visually stunning. Beowulf Boritt’s colorful set is dominated by giant canvases festooned with bold brushstrokes evoking Degas’ brand of impressionism. The canvases are frequently in motion to keep pace with the fast-changing segues between scenes and numbers that pepper this fast-moving production. Similarly, William Ivey Long’s meticulous costumes borrow from the artist’s painting style, while Ken Billington’s inventive lighting adroitly captures every conceivable mood and situation.
Yet “Dancer” is also uneven in several critical areas. That includes some forgettable numbers, such as act one’s “Laundry.” At times, Ahrens’ book plays like a sappy soap opera, especially when the overdrawn mother character (played by Karen Ziemba) is onstage.
Ahren’s book infuses the title character with the strong personality of one who lives off the hard Paris streets. Peck’s Marie is stubborn, sassy, career-minded and opportunistic. And oh yes, the multitalented performer is also an accomplished singer. As the feisty Degas, Gaines draws his character as a larger-than-life figure (annoyingly so in some cases) who discovers his young model’s budding artistry as his own slowly ebbs. He summarizes it in the moving number “In Between,” one of the tuner’s highlights.
Luker offers a sublime performance as the adult Marie who returns to Paris upon the news of Degas’ death to finally view the sculpture that changed her life. The actress is completely at ease with her inquisitive and seasoned character, while her pleasing soprano enriches many of the show’s strongest numbers, including “C’est le Ballet” and “Looking Back at Myself.” Another musical boost comes from actor-singer Kyle Harris, young Marie’s love interest, whose tenor voice is featured at just the right moments.