“Vices” has its virtues in Caldwell Theatre revival

If you saw the Caldwell Theatre Company’s world premiere musical Vices: A Love Story a year ago, rest assured the reprise is as sultry and sensual as you remember.

What worked before works even better now; what didn’t work still makes you scratch your head.

Director Clive Cholerton and choreographer AC Ciulla, freed from the pressure of building the piece under deadline in the rehearsal hall, have created a sleeker, smoother version of last season’s popular success.

While this new edition is essentially the same production with scores of tweaks, it’s more polished, more self-assured to the point that you might think some of the material is new. The cast moves with more confidence; the singers deliver the music with more verve. The sets, lights, costumes and especially Sean Lawson’s projections have been spruced up as if everyone had time to do it the way they wanted to originally.

First-timers should be warned that this is not a traditional Broadway book show like Oliver. But while it has an avant-garde feel ‘ the modern dance idiom, the often pointillist score ‘ it’s really not ground-breaking, just something we don’t see in mainstream South Florida theater.

Vices is a 75-minute tale tracking an urban 21st Century love affair represented by two silent dancers (Holly Shunkey and Albert Blaise Cattafi). Their thoughts are revealed in songs delivered by a Greek chorus of singers ‘ a style reminiscent of Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out.

The show begins with the steamy love-making of a couple who have just met and then charts the arc of their deepening relationship.

Subsequent songs illustrate the lovers’ vices driving them apart ‘ obsessions with gambling, work, shopping, texting ‘ most symptoms of a technological, fragmented society that deadens the humanity in us. Only when the lovers plug back into their feelings, can they reunite.

The show still soars anytime the dancers couple in affecting pas de deuxs; it still varies wildly when the songwriters illustrate the vices.

Each vice song is a vaudeville number, some serious, some jocular, but each echoing a different musical style. The best uses a nerve-jangling Manhattan Transfer brand of vocalise to accompany the work-obsessed hero spurning his girlfriend for a long day at the office. Several showcase the gorgeous voices of the chorus such as Lara Janine’s smoky paean to alcoholism.

But this devotion to an eclectic score often remains so silly and the choice of styles so jarringly irrelevant to the overall show that the show seems schizophrenic. One number lampoons the addiction of consumer spending with credit cards via a Mozart-era comic opera, another presents a funkadelic soul singer bopping in a tune about smoking. Huh?

Additionally, there remains the jarring juxtaposition of cartoonish numbers with the emotional scenes of the lovelorn couple. A fixation for chocolate simply doesn’t rank with alcoholism as the source of a rift in a relationship.

The music and lyrics by Michael Heitzman, Ilene Reid, Everett Bradley and Susan Draus remain serviceable, even occasionally touching. But no one will be able to recall a single lyric or melody on the ride home.

Another problem is the audibility of the words. While the lyrics in the solo numbers are crisp, the rapid-fire words in the group numbers often turn to indecipherable mush. Sometimes the band overpowered the singers

The strength of the show is Ciulla’s fluid and sensuous movement. His work echoes Tharp’s, but his designs are even more athletic and angular. He finds every possible way of intertwining bodies while they are still in motion. His Carbonell-winning choreography for Shunkey is all aching grace and he showcases Cattafi’s gravity-defying ability to change positions in mid-leap.

Nowhere is the extra topspin that Cholerton has gotten from the cast more noticeable than in the work of Shunkey, a lithe gamin dancer who gives an evocative acting performance as she weaves and writhes. The way her face lights up with lust, joy and sadness is hypnotic. She was stunning in the original incarnation, justifiably winning a Carbonell in the process. But now she simply inhabits the part.

Her dance partner is one of the newbies in the cast. While he is more stolid than Shunkey, he too puts across the pleasure and angst of his character in a way most regional theater dancers rarely do.

All the singers have at least one featured moment to shine:’ Will Lee-Williams’ body percussion accompaniment to an a cappella list song on ways to have sex, Danielle Lee Greaves’ lament about money and Carlos L. Encinias’ love song to chocolate.

The choice to reprise the show is not a surprise. The initial production occurred during the summer of 2009, so some of the Caldwell’s subscription and seasonal patrons didn’t see it. Additionally, it was Cholerton’s signal to the community that he wanted to expand the Caldwell’s artistic mission beyond familiar warhorses. In that sense, Vices certainly does what he wanted.

Vices: A Love Story plays through Dec. 12 at the Caldwell Theatre Company, 7901 N. Federal Highway, Boca Raton. Performances 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. No performance Nov, 25, but additional performance 7 p.m. Sunday Nov. 28. Tickets $38-$50 available by calling (561) 241-7432 or toll-free (877) 245-7432 or caldwelltheatre.com.

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