Herman Cornejo and Alessandra Ferri in Chéri
Martha Clarke's new dance-theater piece Chéri, which opened last night at the Pershing Square Signature Center, very well could be the most beautiful looking production audiences will find onstage between now and the end of the year.
Everything about this show, based on the Collette novella of the same name glistens with elegance. Not just David Zinn's sumptuous recreation of a spartanly furnished Parisian flat which cuts the stage on a bias to create a sense of skewered voyeurism for theatergoers, but also Christopher Akerlind's lush lighting design that brings sunny mornings and melancholy evenings to life while also bisecting the stage with artistic precision.
The production also features two exceptional dancers. There's Herman Cornejo, who plays a twentysomething, his mother's "dear" or "chéri," who is enthralled by Lea, an older woman and a longtime friend of his mother's. At Cornejo's side is Alessandra Ferri, who plays Lea, the young man's love interest and someone who is as much in his romantic and sexual grip as he is in hers.
Both Cornejo and Ferri are well known by ballet aficionados, and the reason for their prominence in the dance world is certainly apparent during the course of this 65-minute show. The grace and passion that they bring to their work can be breathtaking.
Unfortunately, the dancers, as well as Amy Irving who appears as the man's disapproving and meddlesome mother, and the designers are somehow let down by director/choreographer Clarke and by playwright Tina Howe, who has provided the text that Irving speaks: brief monologues that help contextualize the dances.
There's little doubt that Irving looks stunning in designer Zinn's period gowns and imbues her character with a grand combination of irony, regality and hauteur, but this fine actress is terribly underutilized in the show. There's little for her to do except enter, deliver what's essentially narrative, and then gracefully exit.
The perfunctory text, though, is helpful for anyone unfamiliar with the arc of Chéri's and Lea's romance, which starts on a steamy note, but goes chilly when his mother arranges for his marriage to a more age-appropriate woman. There is ultimately a brief reconciliation, but with the eruption and eventual end of World War I, there's little hope for the lovers.
Clarke's dances, pas de deux and solos for Cornejo and Ferri, are a mix of classical balletic movement and modern dance, and they certainly fit the musical accompaniment which is provided by pianist Sarah Rothenberg, who plays works by the composers such as Debussy, Poulenc, and Ravel. Sadly though, repetitiveness creeps into Clarke's work, and there are only fleeting glimpses of the sort of stage wizardry that has made some of her other pieces, such as Vienna Lusthaus and Miracolo d'Amore such electrifying events.
Cornejo and Ferri do find ways of communicating the varied emotions underneath their spins, leaps, and embraces, but their fine work and the designer's lavishness ultimately are not enough to fully pull theatergoers into Colette's tale.
---- Andy Propst
Chéri plays at at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: signaturetheatre.org.
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