Theatre en Bloc’s “Dance Nation” is a dazzling post modern satire with surprising heart

I first came upon “Dance Nation” on a random October night, a light rain falling on a too-hot Autumn afternoon. Though I had made other plans that night, the play had gripped me, leaving me unable to escape its world. The moment I finished it, I knew that someone in this city must produce it, and low-and-behold, just a few months later, it would be gracing the stages of the Long Center, in the hands of one of Austin’s most talented directors. Theatre en Bloc’s production of this bold, unique work keeps everything I first loved about the work intact, while filling it with life and artistry that elevates an already incredible work to new heights.

“Dance Nation” is one of the most audacious pieces of theatre I’ve seen in some time. Though on paper, the story of a group of dancer striving to win a competition seems rote, Clare Barron turns this on its head in a delightfully batty way, giving us a warts-and-all look at the life of the teenage girl, complete with sex talks, period talk, and so much more. The play is full of nudity, sexually explicit and raunchy dialogue, and other extreme moments that might have the more mild-mannered in the audience blushing, but despite it all, it never seems gratuitous, but instead helps in building the play’s universe, grounding the action, and aiding the audience’s ability to empathize with these dancers.

Realism isn’t quite what Barron is going for here, however. From the early stages, it’s obvious that the action here is taken to a more extreme level. For one, these dancers, ranged from 11-14, are cast with actors of all ages, making for a disorienting time in the play’s early moments, but also leading to some of the play’s funniest moments. Much of the dialogue and action of the play is also presented in a highly stylized, even post-modern style, with everything from dialog to movement being exaggerated to the most extreme manner, making for a huge challenge for each of our actors, as one moment they’ll be hissing or whispering their lines, and the next they’ll be screaming at the top of their lungs, or even writing on the ground like vampires.

Though the play brings plenty of shocked laughs, there are also moments of surprising pathos. There are numerous moments in Barron’ story that are sure to bring a few tears, as the earnest desires of many of our characters make them very sympathetic, and their struggles are sure to remind us of our own foibles. One of the more surprising moments of real emotion comes from the more comical character, Maeve, a playful, youthful dancer, head always adorned with cat ears, but who is played by older actress Elise Jacobs, a fun, odd piece of casting. She gets her moment to shine, however, near the end of the play where she is given her own monologue, during which we’re regaled with a recollection from her youth, which is drawn in a very poignant and heart-rending way by the monologue’s end. It’s all part of what makes “Dance Nation” such a wonder, in that it’s able to bring out so many shocks and laughs while never losing sight of its heart.

Dance Nation is replete with one of the most talented casts I’ve seen together in some time. Seeing Austin all-stars like Sarah Danko, Susan Myburgh, Amy Downing, and the rest of the talented cast share the stage is nothing short of a wonder, and throw Dennis Bailey into the mix and it becomes something truly special. Each actor is able to breathe their own unique life into their characters, so that each one seems to be living their own separate narrative. You feel that, at any point in the play, we could spin off and follow any of the play’s characters, and still have an amazing time, and that is the sign of excellent production, and a testament to the ability of this cast.

Though I wish I had the time to go through and celebrate each of the performers, special notice must be given to the work done by Katy Atkinson as Ashlee. The young performer shows skills well beyond her years, using her raw charisma to give life to her explosive monologue early in the piece. She carries herself with such confidence and polish that you’re bound to be awe-stricken by the time she leaves the stage. She also elevates nearly every scene she’s in, with her remarkable physicality and bold choices.

Being such a fan of the original work, Theatre en Bloc’s “Dance Nation” had a lot to prove, but Jenny Lavery, as always, pulls off something magical here, elevating an already astounding piece of writing into something audiences will be talking about for months. Featuring one of the best casts ever assembled in Austin, the play is bold, audacious, and hilarious, while never losing its heart or emotional relevance. It may not be for everyone, and indeed, can be difficult to recommend to some theatre-goers, but for those willing to take the leap, it’s an experience you won’t soon forget.

Photo courtesy of Theatre en Bloc.

‘Les Miserables’: Broadway in Austin brings a spectacular, heart-rending rendition of a Broadway classic

Some feelings are evergreen. Holst’s “Mars” will always quicken the heartbeat; “Psycho”‘s shower scene will always have one’s nerves on end; and, no matter how often you see it, a powerful rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” will always leave one in tears. The musical “Les Miserables” is a piece of art which, despite running for over a quarter of a decade, has not lost an ounce of it power, as the latest tour, brought to us by the fine people at Broadway in Austin, proves. With no flashy gimmicks, with no stunt casting, with no major changes, this production of “Les Miserables” is just as emotionally devastating and satisfying as it was so many years ago, if not more so, with a fine cast of both newcomers and mainstays, who all give it their all create one of the best iterations of the musical this critic has seen.

Jean Valjean is one of the great, meaty roles of the Broadway canon, perhaps the meatiest. It’s a challenging role, requiring not only stage presence and a prodigious singing talent, but also the acting ability to play a character from his younger years to his final, aged death. It’s been performed by luminaries such as Colm Wilkinson an Hugh Jackman, so any actors stepping up to play the role knows that will have huge shoes to fill. Luckily, Nick Cartell brings just the right balance of skills to fill those shoes. His vocal work alone would leave him worthy of praise, with his sharp, beautiful falsetto absolutely soaring, perfectly, in his rendition of “Bring Him Home”, which is only a cap to the wonderful work he does throughout. He also brings an amazing presence to the role, commanding our attention at every turn, and creating great chemistry between the equally imposing performance of Josh David as Javert.

Josh Davis as ‘Inspector Javert’ and Nick Cartell as ‘Jean Valjean’ in the new national tour of LES MISÉRABLES. Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy

As Javert, Josh Davis plays the perfect foil to Cartell’s Valjean, with his tall, gaunt stature with sunken features, a figure of looming doom constantly following close behind our hero. His deep, resonant voice booms through the theatre, running up the spine and practically bringing shivers to the audience. It’s a bit of pitch-perfect casting, as it casts Javert as almost a grim reaper figure, an arch-nemesis just waiting for Valjean to make one wrong move. This does minimize some of the sympathy that certain performers may bring to the role, but it also, in its own way, helps to streamline the relationship, something that is appreciated in a narrative this dense. Davis, for his part, plays the role to perfection, with his commanding presence and unique vocal style, and will have most of the audience awed by the time he leaves the stage.

“I Dreamed a Dream” is a number that most people in America know by heart. It’s a soaring, tear-wrenching ballad, sung to the rafters that blows open all the windows. It’s fascinating, then, to see what Mary Kate Moore does with the song, choosing to use the soft beauty of her smooth, crystalline voice to keep the song low, to let every emotion slowly seep out of her, not with any lack of power, but without the usually explosive volume. What this does is create a more intimate moment, a moment that feels more personal to the character, which in many ways is much more fitting to the song in question. Indeed, this is the way Moore handles her performance as a whole as Fantine, bringing a more grounded feel to the character that helps us relate to her plight. It’s important that we get emphasize with Fantine, and quickly, as she spends so little time on stage, but her fate pushes forward much of the momentum of the story, so she has to be likable, pitiable, and venerable, three things that Moore brings here with gusto. Even though I’ve seen this play upwards dozen times, I couldn’t help getting misty-eyed during this rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”, and by the time she comes to her final destination, I was not alone with my weeping.

Paige Smallwood as ‘Éponine’ in the new national tour of LES MISÉRABLES. Photo Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

One of the true breakout stars of the piece, however, is Paige Smallwood as Eponine. Eponine is one of the most sympathetic characters in the piece, a child raised by horrible parents, stealing and begging in the streets to stay afloat, yet full of caring and love. It’s a difficult role to pull off, as it requires a soft heart but a strong backbone, a sensitive strength that comes from within. Smallwood carries this well, with a voice like that of broken glass: clear, smooth, and beautiful, yet sharp, piercing, sometimes even dangerous. The moments she’s on stage are some of the highlights of the piece, and “On My Own” has rarely carried so much raw emotion than when performed by Smallwood. If there’s any justice in the world, Smallwood will have a bright future ahead of her, as she has the talent to propel herself into dazzling heights.

I could go on for several thousand more words on this talented cast. Jasper Davenport gives one of the most charming rendition of Gavroche I’ve ever seen; Allison Guinn steals every scene she’s in as Madame Thernadier; Jillian Butler’s clear, birdsong voice elevates a role that’s usually fails to click with me in Cosette; Matt Shingledecker is a powerful presence as Enjorlas; Joshua Grosso brings an awkward, youthful energy to Marius that makes him incredibly endearing; and on and on, it’s a network of actors so talented that it would take far more words than anyone would want to read to really do them justice. The crew of this “Les Miserables” has done an astounding job in rounding up this collection of talents, and it has paid off in spades with one of the best casts the play has ever seen.

There’s a simplicity to the way this the crew of “Les Miserables” has chosen to present the piece. There are no flashy gimmicks, no bold acting choices, or stunt casting, only a polished production, solid cast choice, and some clever directing, which all comes together to create the very distillation of what “Les Miserables” should be, in all its of heart-racing, tear-inducing glory.

The company of LES MISÉRABLES performs “Master of the House” with J Anthony Crane as ‘Thénardier’ and Allison Guinn as ‘Madame Thénardier.’ Photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy

Photos courtesy of Matthew Murphy.