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Brilliantly conceived and performed SLEEPING BEAUTY @ Palace Theatre

Brilliantly conceived and performed SLEEPING BEAUTY @ Palace Theatre

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

When the list of productions for the 2013-2014 Key Bank Broadway series was announced, many predicted that the number of season tickets holders would drop.  There was no new blockbuster, no WAR HORSE or BOOK OF MORMON, even a couple of shows that have previously had their Cleveland runs, and a ballet.  Just like the predictions of the demise of Cleveland Play House due to its move to the Allen complex on Playhouse Square, the doomsayers were wrong.

Gina Vernaci, Senior Vice President of Theater Operations, once again seems to have selected an offering of shows that is aimed to please.  Last year’s record for season ticket sales has been exceeded.  As of opening night of this season’s first show, SLEEPING BEAUTY, 27,600 patrons have bought the series, making it one of the largest group of advance purchasers in the country.  (And, by the way, Cleveland Play House is doing a booming business.)

Matthew Bourne’s SLEEPING BEAUTY A Gothic Romance, is a ballet.  Yes, a show with all dancing, no singing, no lines.  But it’s like no ballet you’ve ever seen or might see.  There isn’t a tutu, leotard or toe shoe in sight.

What there is, is an exciting, well conceived, brilliantly performed story filled with laughter, intrigue, gothic overtones, and wonderful costumes, which flows from Edwardian to modern times in a swirl of breathtaking visual wonder.

Matthew Bourne is a choreographic genius.  Since 1992 when he staged THE NUTCRACKER, to SWAN LAKE, his 1995 international hit, the name Bourne and sold out audiences have become synonymous.

Bourne is fearless.  He refashioned SWAN LAKE, a story about a serious search for love and what people are willing to do for it, into a humor-filled modern ballet with a flocks of swans, who are usually portrayed by delicate females, into a corps of bare-chested men in feathery breeches.  All this to the delight of audiences and critics.

Who says ballet has to be high-brow?  Bourne stresses the original once upon a time story, reinventing it where necessary, adding humor and intrigue and arranges the dance movements to be real and not affected.  For example, an  infant, which is usually a motionless doll, is portrayed by a stick manipulated puppet, similar to the horses in WAR HORSE.  The results were, “ohs,” “ahs,” and titters of glee from the audience.

Instead of a prince, with no connection to the princess, who he kisses and brings out of her long sleep, the girl’s childhood commoner boy friend turns out to have the secret weapon lips.

Add gothic vampires, flying monkeys, a poisoned black rose, and a treadmill that carries dancers across the stage so they appear to be floating without leaving the ground, and you have a fascinating evening

SLEEPING BEAUTY is the story of Aurora, a young princess, cursed because of an agreement gone bad between her parents, who were unable to conceive, and the dark fairy.  When the dark fairy is scorned, Aurora is cursed. The original story was turned into a ballet in 1800 by Marius Petipa and staged to the gorgeous music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Bourne’s places his story in the fin-de-Siècle period when fairies, vampires and affluence created a gothic image.  He adds the intrigue of Caradoc, the secret son of the dark fairy, who desires to seek revenge via a poisoned black rose.

Following the very specific time line laid out in the original tale, the story jumps ahead from Aurora’s christening (1890), to 1911, when we find Aurora, now living in the uptight Edwardian era.  Not only has the child grown into a young woman, and the clothing styles changed, but the choreographer leaves behind the old style of dancing, and creates movement which echoes the dance crazes of the new era.  Through the machinations of Caradoc, the princess pricks her finger on the poisoned black rose and falls into a deep permanent sleep.

We are transformed to 2011.  Costumes (contemporary jeans), scenery (a disco with mod neo lights), and attitudes have changed.  So does Bourne’s choreographic style, with modern body and hand moves, many echoing contemporary choreographers’ styles.  There’s a little Bob Fosse, a little Michael Kidd, and a lot of current Michael Bourne!

Don’t worry about following the storyline.  The tale is explained with a series of lettered graphics projected onto the front curtain during the overture, and at each time change.  If you are really interested in understanding all the subtleties, get to the Palace early and read Bourne’s excellent notes in the program.

Petite Hannah Vassallo is glorious as Aurora.  She moves like her feet aren’t  touching the floor, her face and body project every mood, her footwork is meticulous, her leaps are incredible.  This is one very, very talented dancer and actress.

Dominic North is charming as Leo, Aurora’s boyhood friend and eventual “prince charming.”  He moves with confidence and ability, displays the right balance between boyhood and manhood, and is totally convincing.  His lifts, carries and catches are precise.

Adam Maskell is evil incarnate as both Carabosse, the dark fairy and Caradoc, her son.  The Adam Lambert (of AMERICAN IDOL fame) look-alike, captures the stage with his powerful and convincing movements.

The rest of cast is impressive.  These are well trained, effectively choreographed dancers.

Lez Brotherston’s costumes, Paule Constable’s lighting, and Paul Groothuis’s sound designs all enhance the production.

Cleveland is the last stop on the company’s short American tour, before it moves to New York City Center for a late October staging.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:   Matthew Bourne’s SLEEPING BEAUTY: Gothic fairy tale, is a ballet not only for the ballet aficionado, but for the person who knows nothing about the dance form, but wants to see a well told tale, marvelously performed, as one will probably never see it again.  As a male acquaintance, who only went because he had subscriber’s tickets said to me the day after the performance, “I never thought that I’d go to a ballet, but would say that it was one of the best things I’ve ever seen on stage.”  Yes, this is an absolute MUST SEE!

Tickets for Matthew Bourne’s SLEEPING BEUATY A GOTHIC ROMANCE , which runs through October 13, 2013 at the Palace Theatre, can be ordered by calling 216-241-6000 or going to