“In Your Arms,” the audience-pleasing new dance musical receiving its world premiere at the Old Globe, seems designed, packaged and market-tested for Broadway.
Ten leading playwrights have been invited to write vignettes around the theme of romantic love and therefore, also about loss. These sketches, relying only minimally on dialogue, have been directed and choreographed by Christopher Gattelli, who won a Tony for his choreography for “Newsies.”
The music, mercurially shifting to accommodate the diverse worlds of the stories, is by Stephen Flaherty. Lynn Ahrens (Flaherty’s frequent collaborator, with whom he wrote the Tony-winning score for “Ragtime”) contributes lyrics.
The advance publicity touted the collective awards haul of the company (18 Tonys, four Pulitzer Prizes, three Emmys and two Academy Awards). Of course, most creative teams don’t constitute a small battalion.
The authorial force here consists of illustrious veterans (Terrence McNally, Marsha Norman, Alfred Uhry, Christopher Durang and David Henry Hwang), midcareer worthies (Nilo Cruz, Douglas Carter Beane and Lynn Nottage), one relatively young gun (Rajiv Joseph) and a lone wild card (Carrie Fisher).
Before I pass judgment on the show, I need to come clean: I have an aversion to dance works that follow an explicitly narrative path. (I trace the malady to a tiresome encounter with the ballet “La Bayadère” at an impressionable period in my youth.)
Choreography is a language all its own, and I want dancers to extricate me from my heavy dependence on words and to free me from my lifelong habit of organizing experiences into plots. Bodies in motion provide relief from the workaday world of rationalism. Dance in its purest form is an escape into dreaming.
It’s no surprise then that I found Gattelli’s choreography most captivating when it was liberated from expositional set-up. But with so many stories, each creating a universe of its own, the shifting of gears from one tale to the next can get cumbersome. The moments when the dancing explodes into autonomous life are thrilling, but I wish there were more of them.
“In Your Arms” has a retrospective frame. A woman, played by Broadway trouper Donna McKechnie (a Tony winner for “A Chorus Line”), finds solace in the memory of a sustaining love. The comforting melancholy of the title number, which McKechnie performs with a lovely wistfulness, sets the show’s autumnal tone.
Although some harsh realities are depicted, such as violent oppression in Fascist Spain in Cruz’s “The Lover’s Jacket” and the brutal rape of a newly married woman in Nottage’s “A Wedding Dance,” the dominant note is somber and meditative.
Norman’s “Life Long Love,” involving the overcomplicated use of letters and home movies, portrays a comfortably married woman, whose heart still partly belongs to the passionate lover from her past. Uhry’s “Love With the Top Down” makes us privy to the conflicting emotions of two young people before and after a sexual encounter in 1950s America.
In “Artists and Models, 1929,” Beane dramatizes the haunted attachment of two men unable to openly declare their love in old New York. Mixing history, humor, sex and sentimentality, this somewhat overly ambitious story (reminiscent of Beane’s “The Nance”) culminates in a drag contest that’s colorful fun if narratively a bit of a stretch.
A surreal action sequence enlivens “White Snake,” Hwang’s lively contribution revolving around a stockbroker in Tokyo drunkenly plunged down a rabbit hole into an updated version of an ancient myth. Joseph’s still germinating “Intergalactic Planetary” tries to widen the thematic scope by bringing in the stars.
Humor abounds in Fisher’s naturally self-referential “Lowdown Messy Shame,” about a writer whose invented characters insist on the romance their unbalanced author keeps sabotaging. In Durang’s fizzy but overlong “The Dance Contest,” a champion Russian team squares off against enthusiastic American upstarts. (Jenn Harris, who plays the brittle comic figure in both the Fisher and Durang vignettes, pulls out all the stops for laughs.)
Directed by Gattelli on a set by Derek McLane that uses only what’s needed to suggest the settings, the production can feel a little cluttered by the sheer number of stories. Half a dozen pieces, each a little more precisely contoured, would make for a more satisfying bill.
Time isn’t the issue for this intermission-less production. It’s that the emotion doesn’t build. The circle does, however, close: McKechnie returns in “Sand Dancing,” McNally’s tale in which (in my reading, anyway) a widow’s ghostly recollections materialize. The show concludes with a touching reprise of the song “In Your Arms.”
The dancing is pleasant, illustrative and ephemeral. The high points are the flamenco flourishes in the Cruz piece, the stylized handling of the brutal attack and its devastating aftermath in the Nottage scene, the tongue-in-cheek martial arts moves in Hwang’s offering and the final image in Norman’s playlet of a woman dividing herself into two.
“In Your Arms” doesn’t amount to significant drama or momentous dance. But as a hybrid of the two, it is a professional and polished work of commercial entertainment. Broadway no doubt beckons. Those who prefer their choreography more abstract and their theater less middlebrow will have to look elsewhere. But theatergoers of a romantic bent will have a hard time resisting this handsome theatrical gift set.