Presented by Greater Boston Stage Company
Music Director and Composer Steve Bass
Director and Choreographer Ilyse Robbins
Featuring Sara Coombs as Odette/Odile and Andy McLeavy as Florenz Siegfried
Review by Shiyanbade Animashaun
Stoneham, MA — Swan Lake in Blue: A Jazz Ballet is a retelling of the classic ballet Swan Lake with heavy jazz influences. It is set in the 1940s, and takes place in an audition space and night club.
As silent actors, the cast’s facial movements are pivotal to communicate the plot to the audience. At times this is easy to grasp, as with the ensemble members ‘dance battling’ and warming up for an audition.The respect the auditioners hold for Jackson Jirad as Ben Kelly, and Andy McLeavy as Florenz Siegfried was clear. The disdain for Sara Coombs as Odette after she arrives late is written clearly on the face of Briana Fallon as a member of the ensemble. These looks happen in many moments, conveying Odette’s threat as a ‘quick learner’ of the steps much more than their comparative execution does. Odettes’ added flourishes are to Siegfried and Kelly’s delight and other auditionees chagrin.
At other times, the casts’ emotions are less clear, and the character’s choices are as well. Closing moments with Odette feature a mob encircling Siegfried and David Visini as Von Rothbart, bent on preventing Odette from getting caught in the fray. When the distraught Odette makes her final choice of the play, the mob then turns on Von Rothbart. I left wondering why they couldn’t have acted sooner. Like the opening scene with Odette cornered, trapped and taken away, I wonder if the lesson is that no one truly had Odette’s well being in mind.
Chairs and a barre transform the once bare set into the club where the Swans work. They are set up before Kelly and Siegfried arrive through the creative use of the stage to show them looking for the Odette. This change causes a momentary bit of confusion that is cleared up when the pair are caught up in the middle of the dance floor, scanning faces for the talented Odette.
The ensemble as club patrons watches the seductive dances of the Little Swans (Briana Fallon and Gillian Mariner Gordodn) with the men enamored at the show while the women appear more contemplative and polite. Side interactions continue between seated ensemble members, and at times with the Little Swans, which add to the atmosphere. In their number, the two Little Swans danced together, but not in unison. From the height of kicks to the manner in which they peered at the crowd while they danced.
In one ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ moment, Siegfried notices Odette as one of the dancing Swans and tells Kelly. Later, during a solo, Odette notices Siegrfried. She appears to recognize him, gets rattled, attempts to leave, decides to stay, then completes her seductive solo ever nearer to him many times. This is read as shy or uncertain about his identity but, for me, it was a confusing display as it continued.
I was also confounded by Odette’s choice to stay with Von Rothbart, mob boss and club owner, played by David Visini. She seems at once afraid of him, and enamored, bewitched and seduced by his tap dancing. The Playbill will tell you that Rothbart asserts to own Odette. It is in this dance where Coombs very clearly shows Odette’s emotions, as she dances beautifully with Von Rothbart while distress plays on her face. Yet in the same moments, there’s no quick switch to joy while dancing with Siegfried. I wondered if this was a choice to show that neither truly makes her happy.
Once again there is another impressive show of dancing from the ensemble. Erica Lundin, Mike Herring, and Maya McClain’s sheer joy were apparent as they danced. There was also the athletic agility of Jirad, and the increasingly impressive high kicks and lift work from Fallon and her partner, Michael Skrzek. At many points throughout the performance I focused on Fallon more than anyone else. When we next see Combs, in the role of the deceptive Odile/Black Swan, she took time to stare straight at the audience as she danced with the unassuming Siegfried, in contrast to how she played Odette/White Swan.
When Odette catches Odile and Siegfried in an embrace, Odette has a shawl over her head and hands over her face. It’s clear that she is not Coombs and ‘Odette’ shields her face for what feels like too long. When Combs reappears on the stage as Odette, she quickly takes the same shawl off her head and joins the Little Swans to commiserate.
Coombs’ curly shoulder-length hair and Gordons’ high bun were obvious differences between the two Odettes’, Thus, the method of face shielding and manner of shawl cover didn’t help give the illusion that the two women were identical women. It was a small moment that I had been looking forward to, as I was anxious about its execution. For me, having the White Swan on stage with Combs as the Black Swan/Odile for so long made that inconsistency all the more obvious.
Throughout, dance is used as a way to draw people in. Ostensibly it traps and later keeps Odette with Von Rothbart, draws Siegfried to Odette and is finally used as a way for Siegfried to apologize to Odette. Unfortunately, the thing she loves brings her no joy.
The 15 member band of saxophones, trombones, bass and drums was amazing. Composer Steve Bass led them to seamlessly blend classic melodies from Swan Lake with jazz influences. By the time there is a moment for a saxophone solo, which garnered a round of applause, I would have welcomed more solos from each band member.
Before the final bow, the ensemble returned to the stage, with the choreographer, Ilyse Robbins in tow. It was great to see her dancing alongside the ensemble and she danced with an infectious joy that made me wish she had been in the play as well.
At the end, Swan Lake in Blue: A Jazz Ballet is a story of love, perhaps ownership and helplessness. It is performed with joy, precise choreography and a score you’ll be left humming when you leave.