Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Review: Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks. That's Life.

Leslie Caron and David Engel. Photos by Ed Krieger

International film star Leslie Caron dances off the screen and onto the stage of Laguna Playhouse in Richard Alfieri’s play Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks. She is as graceful as ever, and still moves with the intrinsic poise of a dancer, even after 80+ years in the business.

Stars from the Golden Age possess an unmistakable allure; that mysterious quality that renders an audience helpless under their spell. Truthfully, I wasn’t prepared to be as enchanted by her as I was but this production gave me an unexpected thrill from beginning to end.

She is one of the few to have danced with iconic partners such as Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev, and has appeared in some of the great classic movie musicals like An American in Paris, Lili, Daddy Long Legs, and Gigi. This is a rare opportunity to see a living legend in action. You don’t want to miss it.

The premise is simple. Caron plays Lily, a crotchety widow who hires an instructor half her age for a series of dance lessons in the hope that she can experience a freedom she never enjoyed during her marriage to a strict Southern Baptist minister. Michael, played by the deliciously irreverent David Engel, is a self-professed passive aggressive queen with a bad attitude who takes the job out of necessity. Suffice it to say these two are in for a rocky ride.

Sparks fly and words wound during their first meeting but, for reasons they can’t yet understand, they know they need each other. Before long, this mismatched pair learns that the dance of life is about more than just perfecting the steps.

Director Michael Arabian delicately balances the play’s gentle humor and wistful commentary on aging and prejudice by making the most of his actors’ natural rapport. Caron is luminous in this deceptively simple vehicle that appears tailor-made for her abilities. She acts and dances with the kind of emotional grace you’d expect from a bona fide star, while Engel matches her scene for scene with plenty of star power of his own.

In Donna McKechnie’s beautifully choreographed dance sequences their connection rivals any of the greats. Through the Swing, Tango, Viennese Waltz, Foxtrot, Cha-Cha and a Contemporary medley of ‘60s fad dances to the music of the Beach Boys, she lectures him on love and he talks to her about forgiving herself for the sins of the past. It is a touchingly human portrait of an unlikely friendship full of the missteps and triumphs that take place when we open up to another. 

Technically, the production is fashionably decked out with John Iacovelli’s wall-to-wall gulf coast condo serving as the spacious setting for all of the lessons. D. Martyn Bookwalter creates luscious sunsets, shimmering moonlight, and flickering stars over the oceanfront balcony and Philip G. Allen’s uplifting sound design and incidental music is a joy. Kate Bergh’s costumes bring forth a subtle nostalgia with each anticipated costume change.

For all of its many charms, it is still the relationship between its two characters that creates the real magic. Leslie Caron is captivating; David Engel, divine in this dance for two we call life. A more gorgeous duo I cannot imagine.

Through June 8, 2014
Laguna Playhouse
606 Laguna Canyon Road in Laguna Beach

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