The fact that “Contact” won the 2000 Tony Award for Best Musical may have been due more to lack of competition than anything else, but it is an unusual and interesting theater experience nonetheless, and certainly worthy of attention.
The show is nothing if not energetic, full of familiar music (no songs were written for “Contact” specifically), stylized acting and vigorous dancing.
It consists of three stories. First and least importantly is “Swinging,” set in 1767 with a girl being pushed on a swing by a servant while an aristocratic gentleman flirts with her. The fop leaves momentarily, and the girl cavorts with the servant in his absence. It is all to little effect, other than a bit of cuteness.
“Did You Move?” has more meat to it, and some heart-rending acting from Meg Howrey as a subservient 1950s housewife. She and her abusive husband (Adam Dannheisser) go to an Italian restaurant, where the appreciative waiters are a stark contrast to the belittlement she receives at home.
In fantasy (probably), she dances with the waiters, comes out of her shell, and tastes life for the first time. Interspersed with this, she continues to make attempts at communicating with her husband.
The bulk of the show is the third story, called “Contact.” In it, a suicidal advertising executive (Alan Campbell) becomes fascinated with a woman in a yellow dress (Holly Cruikshank; understudied for this review by Laura Catalano) whom he sees at a swing club.
The dancing throughout the show is superlative. Some of it is beautiful and expressive, particularly from Meg Howrey as the housewife. And some of it is just flat-out spectacular. The swing dancing in the third story is electrifying. I haven’t seen Holly Cruikshank as the Girl in the Yellow Dress, but her understudy, Laura Catalano, was incredibly magnetic Wednesday night. When she is onstage, you don’t look anywhere else.
It is the show’s concepts that are unclear. If the point is that we all need to make emotional contact with other people, then the first story betrays that with its one-dimensional characters and go-nowhere plot.
But even between the other two stories, there is muddiness. The line between fantasy and reality is confusingly blurred with the wife and the ad guy in their respective stories. Are they really dancing with waiters and at nightclubs, or is it in their heads? Is the wife even “dancing” at all, or do we see her dancing only as a metaphor for something else?
Shows needn’t spell everything out for their audiences, of course, but they must make their intentions clear if they are to have any impact. “Contact” obviously means to say something, but its message is garbled. Taken purely as a dance-for-entertainment event, however, it is fantastic.
This show came to Salt Lake City the week of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, opening that very night. The performances were dedicated to the victims of the attacks and began with a moment of silence.