“Facade” an irresistible charmer
Danceworks, Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra and Milwaukee Opera Theatre have a ball with some 1920s vintage British avant-gardiana from Edith Sitwell and William Walton.
Edith Sitwell and William Walton had fingers in the air and ears to the ground. They knew just what 1921 England was all about: The Jazz Age bumping against Victorian propriety. The poet and the young composer seized the moment in Façade, an archly allusive “entertainment” that referenced everything from jazz to Stravinsky to Ravel to Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs.
Danceworks choreographer Dani Kuepper and her collaborators, Richard Hynson of the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra and Jill Anna Ponasik of the Milwaukee Opera Theatre, knew just what Sitwell and Walton were about. They dabbed a sweet, light frosting of sincerity and gentle humor over the arch irony of the 21 vintage vignettes. The show, neatly arranged in the round beneath the dome of the Milwaukee Theatre Rotunda, charmed for every second of its 56 minutes.
Niffer Clarke, Diane Lane, Nathan Wesselowski and James Zager, all accomplished singers, recited the poems. Good move to use singers, as the words appear to have been couched very specifically within the music. They had to count, and they did so with assurance. Every now and then, they added hints of pitch and line and approached sprechstimme. That heightened the musical quality of poetry that often is more about sound that sense. Though the singers come armed with mobile mikes and are readily audible, the truth is you just catch the words here and there. And that’s fine.
Better to pay attention to the personalities that unfold amid that dancerly hi-jinks as Façade zips by. The singers, beautifully dressed in period resort wear — light suits for the men, light cotton dresses for the women — are the grown-ups in the mix. They don’t stand off to the side and speak; all four are good movers and interacted well with the 13 dancers (all women, but for Alberto Cambra). Kuepper’s cleverest bit for them is a doubles badminton match, Wesselowski/Lane vs. Zager/Clarke, with the chorus girls forming the surrealistically active net in between. The tiny Clarke — well known locally for her many ingenue roles at the Skylight — takes hilarious glee in ending the contest with a vicious smash. If they’d played with an actual birdie, Lane would have a headache now.
The show opens with Wesselowski as an exasperated father subject to the rambunctious antics of adorable daughters Christal Wagner, Melissa Anderson, Kim Johnson-Rockafellow and Liz Zastrow. The irresistible girlish exuberance those four women set the tone for the show. They inhabited characters so full of bubbling energy that they just had to dance, in the way that four-year-old girls twirl spontaneously without regard for circumstance. It was that charming.
Though the original production, in 1922, comprised only words and music, the ragtime, jazz, tango, polka and waltz rhythms in Walton’s score make it a natural for dancing. Hynson conducted a sextet comprising flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet (doubling bass clarinet), alto saxophone, trumpet in C, cello and percussion (snare, cymbal,triangle, Chinese block, castanets, tambourine, jingles). This combination can — and does, over the course of Façade — sound like a genteel British version of a jazz band, a village band, Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale ensemble, and like a chamber group playing some dreamy Ravel. This is not an easy piece to play. Balance and blend are tricky, and everything is exposed. But Hynson and his players made it sound like fun.
Fun is the point of the whole thing. I had a lot of it Thursday, and so will you if you catch one of the remaining performances, at 7:30 p.m. Friday or 4 p.m. or 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 26-27, at the Milwaukee Theatre, 500 W. Kilbourn Ave. For tickets and further information, visit the Danceworks website or call the Milwaukee Theatre box office, 414 908-6035.