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Merry Widow Casting and Reviews

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I saw last Saturday's matinee performance of The Merry Widow. For a full-length ballet, there's really not all that much dancing, although while the dancing there is seems simple, it requires precision, clarity, and sweep to keep it from looking precious. What The Merry Widow is, though, is a really good show, especially when performed with the committment that PNB brought to it.

The first time I saw the ballet was in the Mercer Arena, while McCaw Hall underwent retrofitting and renovation. The intimate setting was quite appropriate for the piece, but at the same time, proximity to the audience would have magnified any flaws or gaps in the dramatic part of the performance. It was a challenge for Company; unlike most full-length classic story ballets, where dancing passages are long and often well-known, the choreography for MW is on the sparse side, and the acting and mime would make it or break the performance. That is quite a risk, given general discontent with how American companies perform mime in general. I thought the production was a triumph of stagecraft, albeit a sparsely attended one; for me Valencienne was Noelani Pantastico's breakout role and paved the way for her Juliet last year.

The questions for me were whether the revival would work in the larger house and whether the freshness and feeling of spontenaiety of the original production would be revived. The answers to both questions were emphatically "yes," a real accomplishment, and it was easy to compare, because on Saturday I saw nearly the same cast. The roles in the ballet bring out different facets of the dancers: both glamour and vulnerability in Patricia Barker, lightheartedness and elegance in Noelani Pantastico, who can be so intense in other roles, and dissoluteness and comedy in Jeffrey Stanton, who so often embodies the self-effacing cavalier. Jordan Pacitti was cast a bit against type as the dashing young suitor to Valencienne, and he brought to Camille the impetuousness of one of Romeo's posse.

Ironically, the lion's share of the dancing went to the two undersecretaries, Josh Spell and Jonathan Porretta, to their sometime partners Magda and Ludmilla, danced by Kylee Kitchens and Maria Chapman, and to the corps of Pontevedrian ladies and gents, who were led in a "national" dance by Kiyon Gaines, who dazzled with soft, legato lines and necklaces of leaps. The key to the performance was the energy and focus of the corps and their leads. In their first introductory scene to Hanna Glawari, the widow, the men created individual characters in the way they presented themselves to Glawari/Barker, bowing and/or kissing her hand. There was, for example, a marked contrast between the crispness and directness of Nicholas Ade's, the quiet elegance of Karel Cruz's, and the professional diplomat's charm of Jonathan Porretta's. Each member of the corps danced as if s/he was front row and center, even when delegated to the back: Cruz, for example, had as much energy dancing in the back of the line, where, alas as one of the tallest members of the Company, he is destined to be, as when he lifted Barker, front and center. And proving the truism that there are no small parts, just small actors, Porretta made every second count as Kromov, regardless of where he was on stage.

The "glue" of the piece lay in five character parts, expertly portrayed: Paul Gibson as Njegus, who is key to many of the plot twists as the character who is privy to all, much to his chagrin; Flemming Halby as the supercilious Maitre d' at Chez Maxim's; Kari Brunson as the "Enraged Client" in a delightful turn as an imperious matron -- I was convinced that Victoria Pullkinen, a Principal Character Actor, had performed this role until I looked again at the program -- Katie Critchlow, a Professional Division student, as her kind, but mortified friend, defenseless in the face of EC's demands and complaints; and Uko Gorter, as the cuckolded Baron Mirko Zeta. As he did in the original production, Gorter stole the show in the final scene, when he realized that his wife is in love with Camille: center stage, he deflated and slowly moved to downstage right, where he stood slightly hunched as the focus moved to the lovers. When the light returned to the Baron, he slowly stood up, straightened his jacket, and gained three feet in stature and dignity. He offered his arm to his wife, who dutifully took it, and then, accepting, invited Camille to join them. It is among the most heartbreaking scenes I've witnessed on a ballet stage, the physicalization of the hurt caused by the champagne and sacher torte mit schlag atmosphere of the ballet and its characters.

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