At century’s end, director-choreographer Susan Stroman and librettist John Weidman developed three stories-in-dance to preexisting recordings, and the resulting show,“Contact,” glided away with Tony Awards. Now Christopher Gattelli (“Newsies”) ups the ante by wangling romance scenarios from 10 luminaries, as well as a live original score by Stephen Flaherty, but future prospects don’t seem nearly as stellar. The Old Globe’s world premiere portmanteau “In Your Arms” proves a thin, patchy affair, yearning to soar while remaining doggedly earthbound.
Gattelli is evidently a voracious recreator of world dance styles with encyclopedic interests. Beginning with a “Romeo and Juliet” pas de deux from Spencer Clark and Lyrica Woodruff, and set against Derek McLane’s Verona-inspired wishing wall, the choreography effortlessly shifts from classical to popular forms and back again. Whether you crave tango and tap, jive and samba, or Martha Graham-like bows and lunges, it’ll show up here before too long.
It all looks and sounds grand, and the dance bona fides of the company of 22 are impeccable. But when a show is determinedly story-based and the stories are lacking, there’s only so much enchantment that movement and tech can infuse. Some of the tales are so slight, you’d think Alfred Uhry or Terrence McNally had impatiently scrawled them on a restaurant napkin so the requester would shove off.
Wading into serious waters courts embarrassment. A kung-fu-fighting opium dream, courtesy David Henry Hwang, earns points for ambition but strains and founders. Pulitzer honorees Nilo Cruz and Lynn Nottage pretentiously evoke images of, respectively, Franco-era Spanish repression and African tribal violence, as forced backdrops to predictable narratives of male-female conflict.
Male-male conflict is personified by a star-crossed 1920s Gotham painter (Jonathan Sharp) and model (Ryan Steele), saddled by Douglas Carter Beane with crudely caricatured “beards,” a depressingly silly drag beauty contest and a downbeat ending. Where Hollywood used to punish the gay man for expressing sexuality, now it’s for repressing same, but the whiff of cliche still lingers.
Marsha Norman and Rajiv Joseph contribute tight, tender contemporary storylines about loves lost and accommodated, and in Christopher Durang’s larky, Cold War-era “Dance Contest,” Jenn Harris shines as a Russian competitor with an unexpected jones for red, white and blue.
Harris confirms her MVP status by playing author Carrie Fisher, at work in Princess Leia hairdo and white robes while tossing back hooch. Wittily tweaking “An American in Paris” imagery, Fisher is determined to foil the budding courtship of a gamine (Samantha Sturm) and Chaplinesque tramp (Jess LeProtto), but her own creations undo her in a perfectly-realized, hilarious vignette.
Finally the original Cassie in “A Chorus Line,” Donna McKechnie, enjoys a beach reunion with lost love George Chakiris, the Oscar-winning Bernardo of “West Side Story.” Our anticipation falls with a crash when the two legends shamble in to raise their arms a bit while barely executing a spin. It’s hard to suppress bait-and-switch anger when your two name stars are dangled till the last moment, to such meager returns.
No one’s expecting past virtuosos to explode again, 50 years on. But if Chakiris and McKechnie couldn’t provide even 30 seconds of magic, it seems cruel and unfair to have put them out there. “In Your Arms” ends not with a taste of dance’s power to transcend the years, but the inescapable reminder of how time diminishes us all. Try waltzing to that as you go back to your car.