I submit that the two most powerful words in the English language are: what if.
Eight years ago, Tony award-winning director-choreographer Christopher Gattelli (“Newsies”) had a “what if” moment that he shared with producer Jennifer Manocherian. Next, they enticed a who’s who of playwrights (collectively with more Pulitzer, Tony, Emmy, and Academy Awards than you can shake a stick at) to pen short stories on the subject of love, and entrusted Gattelli to choreograph the output to original music by composer Stephen Flaherty and lyricist Lynn Ahrens. The result of this baker’s dozen collaboration is the toe-tapping-to-standing-ovation dance-theatre musical “In Your Arms,” receiving its world premiere at The Old Globe Theater.
The near-wordless 105-minute show features ten vignettes on love won and lost told in dance styles ranging from ballet to flamenco to tango to tap to jitterbug to ballroom to the Charleston performed by an ensemble of 22 remarkable dancers. Even sans dialog, each writer’s voice on the page remains clearly recognizable on stage.
In “Love with the Top Down” by Alfred Uhry, tentative, awkward teenagers explore first love. You’ll think you’re parked on Mulholland Drive overlooking the San Fernando Valley courtesy of lighting designer Donald Holder.
In “A Wedding Dance” by Lynn Nottage, an African couple’s dream of a better life becomes an immigrant’s nightmare that puts their love to the ultimate test. The nuptial couple dances in front of a stage-width, draped cloth upon which a shadow-sequence design by Larry Reed conveys an entire village joining in the celebration.
Carrie Fisher contributes “Lowdown Messy Shame,” which stars a Carrie Fisher character with Princess Leia hairdo. The writer soon finds herself at cross purposes with her imaged characters as they advance their own ideas about the arc of a love story set in Paris. In a hilarious battle of wills, Fisher forcefully rewinds a scene by repeatedly striking the backspace key of her laptop as bewildered dancers find their feet carrying them backwards.
Christopher Durang’s uproarious “The Dance Contest” could signal a return of the Cold War when a line is drawn in the sand between Soviet and American ballroom dancers. Get your score cards ready.
Scenic designer Derek McLane’s deceptively simple set is as versatile as the writers and dancers in this production. Aided by projection designer Olivia Sebesky, a long brick wall, a single door and a window fluidly transform into Juliet’s balcony, a palace window of a Spanish dictator, a door leading into a smoky nightclub, a living room wall upon which 8-mm home movies and Kodak carousel slides remind a woman of a long-ago romance. Costume designer Jess Goldstein ties elements neatly together with lush or whimsical costumes as each story warrants. Sound design by Peter Hylenski and boffo orchestration by Michael Starobin.
Bookending the show is the title song performed by Tony Award winner Donna McKechnie (the original Cassie in “A Chorus Line”). As a solitary McKechnie initially sings, surrounded by enamored couples, the song resonates with heartbreak. When McKechnie returns in the closing number “Sand Dance” by Terrence McNally, she is joined by Oscar winner George Chakiris (“West Side Story”). Surrounded by his warm embrace, this time the same lyrics impart an intoxicating kiss.