The good news: Let’s Dance, the newest musical offering from Terra Bruce Productions, showcases a number of wickedly talented young singers at the ever-lovely Winter Garden Theatre.
The worse news: the show itself, about a performing arts high school in Manhattan, is several rewrites away from being ready for performance.
It’s a simple, tired premise: the Fame-like academy risks losing its funding. It’s 1963, and the kiddos have been swept away by Beatlemania — the students, who major in dance, acting, and music, would much rather perform pop standards than opera at their end-of-year-showcase. With the help of the new vocal teacher (and former student) Marco, the students put together a rock-n-roll talent show, keeping it a secret from the dastardly Principal Sherman while the closure of the school looms at the end of the academic year.
Victoria Wells-Smith’s book, based on an original conceit by Terra Bruce founder Walter Schroeder, is efficient in the sense that it gets the job done — it latches together ‘60s standards like “Hound Dog” and “The Peppermint Twist” with a sort-of plot — but there’s something off about both the premise and the characters who facilitate it. The text of Let’s Dance at times feels divorced from reality, an odd mish-mash of TV shows like Victorious and Glee without any self-aware, tongue-in-cheek humour to grease the narrative along. There’s an agelessness to the characters, too, with little to differentiate between the teachers and the students, and the increasingly banal conflicts ask audiences to suspend their disbelief more and more as the show progresses.
There’s the issue of time, as well, in which there’s not much to indicate the early 1960s setting beyond a line here and there and, of course, the songs. Wells-Smith’s dialogue, paired with Keith Pike’s direction, often feels rooted in the vernacular and social dynamics of the 2020s — and that’s a problem. Theoretically, Let’s Dance could have a built-in audience of folks for whom these songs evoke nostalgia. But when the dialogue feels more reminiscent of recent “performing arts high school antics” media than even a musical like Grease, the production risks alienating those older audiences. Thankfully, two-act musical is commendably zippy — at approximately two hours, it’s about the right length — and Wells-Smith’s choreography is period-appropriate and delightfully high-energy despite that curious book.
Indeed, not all is lost — the cast of Let’s Dance is frequently excellent. Luciano Decicco as Marco has a gorgeous voice, warm and resonant in moments of both opera and pop. Kenzie Drover plays Brenda, one of the students, and she nails her multiple solos. Mikayla Stradiotto is Sophia, the school’s dance teacher, and she offers one of Let’s Dance’s more emotionally nuanced performances. But it’s the East Coast-based Rebecca Sellars who steals the show time and time again as lovelorn student Andrea, with a powerful high belt and thrillingly agile voice. I hope this isn’t the last time we see Sellars in Toronto — she’s destined for bigger stages and better roles.
It’s a known concern: Toronto desperately needs more musical theatre, a company that produces high-quality, commercial musicals of a scope somewhere between Bad Hats and Mirvish. But so far, the two companies who have positioned themselves in that missing middle, More Entertainment Group and now Terra Bruce, have missed the mark, in my estimation. The talent is there, but it would seem the programming is not. That the cast of Let’s Dance is nearly entirely white also seems troubling, particularly as Terra Bruce begins to produce musical theatre full-time in Toronto after its start in St. John’s — there’s no excuse for a lack of diverse casting in a city as large and rife with theatrical talent as Toronto.
Terra Bruce has potential, and it’s clear the executive team is passionate about this work — I’ll be curious to see their upcoming show, The Wild Rovers, which brings the company back to the Winter Garden this fall. See Let’s Dance if you want to hear ‘60s standards impeccably sung, sure, but don’t expect this show to solve Toronto’s musical theatre problem.
Let’s Dance runs at the Winter Garden Theatre until August 20. Tickets are available here.
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