On Stage: A New Style of Marathon

Photos: Drew YenchakM33 begins with a couple slowly evolving like a virtual mobile. Backbend, embrace, a precipitous arabesque. It codifies the dance marathon — backbreaking, the human connection, the danger.

The screen behind them slowly changes: My name is Baby June. My name is Dainty June. My name is June Havoc. My name is June Havoc and I was a marathon dancer.  

In a nutshell, that’s what M33 is all about. There’s a lot of material to mine here, but many have done so without striking gold. But co-directors and co-choreographers of this production, Tomè Cousin and Peter Gregus, were able to go to the source, June Havoc herself. Yep, she was the Baby June of the mega-musical Gypsy. And her story, particularly her sojourn through the marathon era before she became a film actress, may be even better.

It was a handsome production, beginning with the faded dance hall splendor of Michael Essad’s scenic design, a lattice-trimmed palace that we may have all come across in one form or another. Just as this scenery waltzed between elegant, enhanced by Andrew David Ostrowski’s skilled lighting, and glaringly chintzy, M33 touched a lot of bases in this story.

I went back to see it again during the second week of its run at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, to check if things had settled and they had…measurably. The directors did a remarkable job with the Point Park University student cast, making the adult characters look so mature and the dancers so ’30’s, even down to their posture and walks.

There was a lot of information to absorb — the “horses” or dancers with strong legs, the “clowns” or artistic performers, “squirrely” people (virtually out of their minds from exhaustion) and a whole era of Higbee Beauty Baths and flagpole sitting. It was all there in the script with great detail, but the terms sometimes just flew by at first glance. Even though the pacing had improved in that second week, it might help to put key definitions right in the program, just so the audience can better keep track of the story, or even capsule comments about the major contestants.

M33 was a real hybrid production —  part Broadway, part dance theater, a serious subject with jolts of dark humor — that will take a real balancing act to pull this workshop rendition off in New York. I loved the way that all the facets were woven together — music, choreography, staging.

On the other hand, it couldn’t be regarded as Broadway, per se, because the script was so finely etched and the production numbers less so.  It wasn’t a musical, too, although the songs, some recorded and others familiar, played an interwoven part in Douglas Levine’s evocative score.

So what was M33?

You might call it a dramedy, mostly intense theater offset by vaudeville acts, period commercials and wry lines like “let the arches fall where they may.” But it’s also heavily invested in dance theater, particularly in the use of a “time” curtain, which allowed for jumps in the marathon action or as the surreal place for “squirrely” contestants and finally as a filmy cover for the former contestants to return, dressed all in white like ghosts.

At the time, the first act read as theater, the second act as dance theater and they really needed to mesh more in the production’s next form.

Given all of these elements, who will be the target audience? More importantly, how? M33 should be more contained and thus heightened, either with a thrust stage, but more like a ballroom setting, where the audience would be transported into the ’30’s.

Photos: Drew Yenchak

Perhaps this production should be an immersive experience, much like Sleep No More, currently playing in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, where the audience wanders through a staged hotel and creates its own personal version of Macbeth.

There is already a cool website, but maybe the cast members and/or cast “audience” could mingle and hand out programs when the audience enters the door.

It would be important that audience quickly identifies with the contestants and latches onto their excitement. So then they will be drawn into this netherworld and care when the dancers’ lives start to fall apart in the final quarter of M33.

After all, there are a great many connections — a period story with timeless human interest, an exposè of the difficulties of dance and yes, an original American reality show.

Addendum. Dance marathons continue even today, mostly on college campuses — not for months, but over a weekend to support various charities. Glad to see some good came out of it.

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