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Musical, Schmusical

Photo by Paul Kolnik

The Dress has come to town. You know — as in the one worn by the Girl in the Yellow Dress in the titular segment of Contact, John Weidman and Susan Stroman’s trio of dance narratives that capture romantic flash points. Not since the Turin shroud has a piece of fabric received as much advance buzz as costumer William Ivey Long’s creation, now on display at the Ahmanson Theater. Contact, in case you’ve spent the past two years in a Taliban prison, is the musical that’s not exactly a musical because its score is drawn from classical compositions and old pop standards, and because the vocals you hear onstage are canned. That the show won 2000’s best-musical Tony is a testament about how flexible Broadway has become as much as the state of the contemporary musical.

The first story, “Swinging,” is a coy reimagining of Fragonard’s painting The Swing — that rococo up-skirt fantasy that, here, posits an arcing mademoiselle (Mindy Franzese Wild) losing her shoe as an aristocrat (Andrew Asnes) and his studly hired man (Keith Kuhl) watch in a garden below. Mostly teased along by Stéphane Grappelli’s violin musings, this piece sports some genuine surprises as it plugs into the the swingin’ three-way suggested by Fragonard’s canvas: Just when we think we know who’s seducing whom and who’s master and servant, the relationships morph into something more complicated — and kinky. Director Stroman obliges with trapezey, Behind the Green Door choreography that is both sexy and athletic.

The half-hour “Did You Move?” is about a married couple visiting a mid-1950s Queens Italian restaurant. The husband (Adam Dannheisser) is one of those guys born with a bad mood and a hair-trigger temper; his wife (Meg Howrey) is a gentle soul who withdraws into balletic fantasies every time her spouse leaves the table to track down some “fuckin’ rolls.” It is in this scene that Contact takes flight, with Stroman’s food-throwing, table-hopping choreography sustaining the wife’s childlike reverie. And if her dreamy escapism seems familiar, writer Weidman takes his narrative to an unexpected level of heartbreak, for just when we think Howrey’s character has broken out of her submissiveness and free of her oppressive marriage, sullen reality returns with a tray of dinner rolls. This moment, when the crippling weight of her matrimonial chains seems to crush her, is cruel and brutal. And yet honest — this is, after all, 1954, and another title for this piece might be “Last Exit to Queens.”

The final story, “Contact,” combines Ambrose Bierce, Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and any number of Swing-era Looney Tunes about shy cats learning to jitterbug. I wish I hadn’t heard all the hype about The Dress — it’s all right, I guess, a tight and clingy garment that accommodates the aerodynamics of its wearer’s movements, and seems ageless to boot, making it the perfect piece of costuming for dancers. But The Dress has also come to define Contact, and unfortunately the segment it inhabits is not that impressive a bit of storytelling. In it, successful but depressed TV ad director Michael Wiley (Alan Campbell) contemplates hanging himself after receiving yet another Clio award. He’s lured to a meat-packing-district pool hall that doubles as a swing-danceteria at night. It’s here that he encounters the mysterious Miss Yellow Dress (Holly Cruikshank), the center of every man’s attention during the pool hall’s nightly bacchantic rituals. The lead-footed Wiley’s pathetic attempts to woo her through dance have a certain amount of geeky charm, but they and their payoff also come with an unwanted amount of predictability — the story is simply too familiar and is not helped by Stroman’s dance plan, which seems like Grease by other means.

Even here, though, Contact confides its secret message, that romance is not necessarily the desire for another person, but the desire for change — that it is not about the redemption of love so much as the love of redemption. In all three vignettes, things change — sexual relationships, marital realities and suicidal tendencies; tied together by the recurring pop of champagne corks and the appearance of a cupid statue, Contact plays on our dreams of transformation, dreams that always end with the words Maybe tomorrow.

CONTACT | By JOHN WEIDMAN and SUSAN STROMAN | At the AHMANSON THEATER, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through September 2