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Perfect Rhythm
By James Yeara

Syncopation

By Allan Knee, directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, choreographed by Susan Cicarelli Caputo

Capital Repertory Theatre, through Oct. 30

If a man is very lucky, a woman will look at him with the same passion shown by Anna Bianchi (Stacey Harris) as she dances with Henry Ribolow (Adam Peltry) just before intermission in Syncopation. The stars shine through the walls, the lights of Coney Island glow, but neither as hot nor as bright as the molten expression on Anna’s face as the couple tango. If a woman is very lucky, a man will be filled with the same passion that bursts from Henry Ribolow. The glee and the giddiness of the huge glowing Ferris wheel and the curving sweep and sudden plunge of the Cyclone make the perfect backdrop for this odd couple, who now seem born to dance together, eyes locked, hands clasped, limbs moving in perfect unison and rhythm.

If an audience is lucky, it will get to witness and share another such expression of love that fills Capital Repertory Theatre’s stage in this production.

Oscar Wilde once said, “There is no such thing as a romantic experience. There are romantic memories, and there is the desire of romance—that is all.” Wilde could have been describing Capital Repertory’s current production of Allan Knee’s Syncopation. This is a play and a production about passion: passion for life, passion for art, passion for a lover. From its setting, to the richness of the title’s definition, to its quirky characters, to its chocolate use of dance—rich, smooth, and tastefully decadent—Syncopation is another winning production on a theme that director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill has explored with such a deft touch in past productions such as I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, The Blue Room, and Nora: what it means to love.

Set in New York City circa 1911, Syncopation tells the story of 38-year-old Jewish meatpacker Henry Ribolow’s passion for dance. Roman Tatarowicz’s scenic design creates the perfect gritty backdrop for Ribolow’s dance obsession: dingy sixth-floor walk-up, huge window upright looking over a dingy industrial cityscape, cracked plaster ceiling, walls marked and streaked, a Victrola prominently commanding upcenter just by the door. Aided by the fluid lighting design of Annmarie Duggan—which sweeps from the overlapping scenes of the pair as Henry and Anna first awkwardly encounter each other, then separately comment on each other and their lives, then dance across various New York City’s attractions—the grit of the rehearsal space dissolves into the opal walls of the palaces and boulevards Henry sees in his imagination. Thom Heyer’s costumes similarly aid this fluidity, especially the beaded and sparkled stockings Anna first shyly shows until she passionately displays them in all their glory at the play’s end.

While Syncopation can be enjoyed simply as an excuse to be thrilled by the choreography of Susan Cicarelli Caputo and the deft dancing of Harris and Pelty, the dance serves the play; it does not supplant it. The ragtime music of Joseph Lamb and Scott Joplin, and Igor Stravinsky’s Patrushka, give challenge to the ever-developing talents of the characters. Music and dance reveal these characters; they don’t stand in for character. Harris and Pelty create a believable Anna and Henry: They are not just dancers who can act a little, but actors who can dance well. From the moment Pelty’s Henry breathlessly bursts into the room, collapsing on the floor, exclaiming “I did it!,” we feel and believe in his obsession. Henry would count the 108 steps to his rented rehearsal room. He would watch and mimic the everyday dances he sees on the streets and cafés and workplaces in New York City (and watching Pelty create these offbeat dances is added bonus in Syncopation).

This version of Syncopation was slated for a Broadway run last fall starring Neve Campbell, and while that production never evolved past the financial difficulties of mounting the splash and flash of Broadway, there are times the padding of the play is felt, especially in Act II. Thankfully, Henry and Anna don’t disappear under the padding: The story, the dancing, and, especially, the theme, are as clear and exact as the duo’s dance steps.


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