Keeping track of the plethora of activities and programs offered by West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park, from comedy nights to improv instruction, from children’s theater to scene study, in addition to their annual series of professional theatrical productions, can be such a challenge that it’s easy to forget that they also have a resident dance company—the Stop/Time Dance Theater, under the direction of Co-Artistic Director Darlene Zoller.
The company is now presenting its 11th annual original theatrical production at the Playhouse, through April 13, under the title “I’d Rather Be Dancing.” That title subtly reflects the company’s purpose: to provide an outlet to talented adult dancers who have not chosen dance as their career. Indeed, the members are employed as teachers, medical assistants, human resources specialists, project managers, physical and speech therapists, IT consultants and a resident in general dentistry, but from the way they all threw themselves into this production, it’s clear that—yes!—they’d rather be dancing.
While Zoller admits she “continues to give opportunities to those with a passion to dance,” it’s apparent that she likes to challenge them as well. “I’d Rather Be Dancing” is a complex vehicle, not only for Zoller to devise, direct and choreograph, but for the dancers themselves. Lest anyone think this is some sort of dance recital, let me assure you that it is not. “I’d Rather Be Dancing” is a full evening, in two acts, of music and dance, with an overarching concept and occasional bits of dialogue that connect the various scenes and numbers. There’s a live, onstage band to complement some of the pieces of recorded music that is used, and the dancers will frequently break into song as they are performing their numbers.
The show employs a full set, designed by Steve Mountzoures, and an array of costumes by Lisa Steier that start out predominantly white but shift to a mixture of black and white over the course of the show, which allows carefully placed dancers in vibrant colors to stand out at significant moments in the show, including a series of very vibrant reds. As necessary for any type of dance program, the lighting plays an important role in quickly establishing a mood or setting a place, and lighting designer Aaron Hochheiser succeeds in creating a variety of environments, including a chaotic party sequence, a disco and a dark nightclub.
The dance numbers spring from the overriding story of the aftermath of a wild party that sees an energetic hoofer (Rick Fountain) collapsing from the frenetic energy. He appears before the pearly gates welcomed by two angels-in-training (Hillary Ekwall and Victoria Mooney) who introduce him to the Big Man in Charge (the stentorian Gail D. Schoppert) subbing for a lunching St. Peter. The hoofer gets a chance to plead for his chance to get into heaven through dance numbers that reveal his past history, only to later be claimed by a visiting Satan (Spencer Pond) who at the end of the first act welcomes the hoofer to a dance crazy “Disco Inferno.” Not to worry: it all turns out well, with the Big Man in Charge taking on the role of Supreme DJ and guiding all the through the Pearly Gates.
Zoller, who teaches at the Hartt School and the Greater Hartford Academy for the Arts, makes sure that the dancing varies throughout the evening, with large production numbers featuring all 17 dancers alternating with sequences between two, four, six or more dancers, and few solid solos here and there. Some of the numbers contain vocals provided by the cast or on the recordings (after all, who could match Led Zeppelin on the vocals to “Stairway to Heaven”). This number, by the way, featured choreography by company member Pond, one of several members who contributed original dances to the production including one by Mike Barker and another by company alumnus Tyler Knowlin, both of whom know how to tap their way across a stage.
Solo vocals are frequently provided by Becky LaBombard, who has an easy time swinging and swaying among the dancers, who’s often partnered with Fountain, who ably mixes both his singing and dancing duties with aplomb. Ekwall and Mooney are fill their cherubic appearances with a delightful spontaneity that the audience finds quite contagious. Sean Pallatroni serves as music director for the evening, with a six member band that’s nice to hear live and at times enhances some of the recordings as they play along. Pallatroni also contributed the words and music to “Remember Me,” a number created in memory of a very young friend of the company, Owen Gregory Woods.
While a few of the dancers begin to stand out as the evening progresses either because of their distinctive appearances or their positions within individual numbers, the evening is predominantly an ensemble show, as the program does not identify the specific participants in the various numbers. The music includes jazz, swing, Broadway, disco and a few standards, so the dances cover a variety of styles assuring that one is never bored. And what is impressive is that there is a lot of dancing: these people are genuinely passionate about their passion! This is much more than just a hobby for them and it shows in their commitment to the project and their thrill in entertaining the audience.
To keep up with theatrical activities in Connecticut and western Massachusetts, consider subscribing to the Hartford Arts Examiner and the Springfield Art Examiner by clicking on the word “Subscribe” at the top of this article next to the byline. A copy of each new article will be sent directly to your inbox.