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Hey Yank! You Lost Me Right at the Dream Ballet

There is this moment in the first act of Oklahoma! when the whole show falls to shit.

Some of you, I know, will argue that Oklahoma! falls to shit the moment the curtain goes up, and there are days on which I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but this particular moment of falling to shit is obvious. If the show is not dead and gone by then, this moment kills whatever whimpering, cornfed spirit the thing has left.

It’s the dream ballet. And it sucks.

In it, the audience is treated to a solid 10 minutes—it might even be 15—of dancing, wherein we don’t learn a whole lot about anything that we didn’t already know a moment before. There are some dim insinuations about the characters’ psyches and maybe a hint or two of sex and violence, but really, it’s just a bunch of dancing that stalls the already-fragile plot cold. In 1943, this type of not-quite-literal storytelling was a major departure from the big dance numbers of the past, which were mostly about cute chorus girls showing off their cute legs. So, bravo for innovation, Agnes de Mille. And thanks, by the way, for introducing the world to the most distressing piece of theatrical formality I can even think of besides The Singing Curtain Call.

I hate dream ballets. I don’t hate them in a historical context, because I recognize how they helped to integrate dance into the musical. But I do hate them when they crop up in new works. They don’t make any sense anymore. Even in revivals, where they have a reason to exist, I get annoyed. Remember the brouhaha about casting Josephina Gabrielle in the Trevor Nunn revival of Oklahoma! because she needed to dance her own dream ballet, for reasons that are still somewhat unclear to me? (Usually, one actress handled the acting duties while another performed the dream ballet.) The only result was that they cast someone who could dance like a dream, but who couldn’t sing worth a damn. I guess everyone forgot that she had to sing for two hours and dance for 15 minutes.

So you can imagine how far up into my head my eyes rolled when a dream ballet showed up in the new musical Yank! I still can’t tell if it was the sarcasm or the resulting seizure, but it was bad. Of course, the show, which runs at the York Theatre Company through April 4, is really good. And a new musical is such rare and splendid thing—a comet that shows up once every billion years—that you want to properly appreciate it before it disappears and leaves you with nothing left to see but Wicked (again) and Memphis (ugh). And this new musical—a bittersweet story about two soldiers who fall in love during World War II—is worth appreciating. The songs are tuneful. The cast is first rate (right at you, Bobby Steggert). The book doesn’t sound like it was written by people whose first language was not English. It’s a worthwhile night of theater, and you should see it before it closes.

The best thing I can say for the dream ballet, though, is that it tries to be not-awful, and succeeds. But the alternate universe here is the future, the faraway dreamland where the central couple in the story can love each other openly. It’s a lovely idea. Except, you know, that it’s been done a thousand times, in a thousand other musicals, in the exact same costumes. (Standard dream ballet attire: tasteful riff on underwear in soothing neutrals.) The other problem is that the dreamland in question exists already. Or is on the verge of existing. Or, at the very least, exists at an event where, per the curtain speech, there’s a longer line at the men’s room at intermission than the ladies’ room. When it occurs in West Side Story—this dream ballet clearly inspired the one in Yank!, right down to the neutral underwear—a world where Tony and Maria could love openly really was out out of reach. It didn’t exist anywhere in reality, and wouldn’t for a long time.

In Yank!, the dream ballet mostly felt like old news. Worse, I got bored and wondered when the show was going to start again.

God knows, if you’re going to write a musical, you better know a thing or two about Michael Bennett, lest you embarrass yourself (right at you Duncan Sheik), but I think you can be too reverential, too. Reverence for theater shouldn’t be reverence for form.

Now, can we get rid of singing curtain calls, too?

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