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<i>St. Louis Woman:  A Blues Ballet</i> Combines Ballet With Broadway Musical - 2003-08-11

A new ballet choreographed to the music of an old Broadway show opened recently at New York's Lincoln Center to outstanding reviews. The Dance Theater of Harlem's St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet, has revived interest in the 1946 musical from which it was inspired.

St. Louis Woman, the musical, had an unsuccessful run on Broadway more than half a century ago. But it has stayed alive in the minds of many for its dazzling score by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. The new ballet revival of St. Louis Woman, is now on its national tour.

Critics are calling it "a visually dazzling fantasy," "sexy and inventive," and, "a triumphant piece of classical dance-theater." What St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet is, is a hybrid. Part ballet/part Broadway musical, the production combines ballet, jazz, and traditional folk dances with a story, all performed by classical dancers to some of the great standards of American popular song.

Anyplace I Hang My Hat is Home, sung by Ruby Hill in the original 1946 recording of St. Louis Woman is one of several songs in the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer score that have gone on to have a life of their own.

"And Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen thought it was the greatest score they had ever written," said theater writer and director Jack Wrangler, who conceived the idea of adapting Harold Arlen's music to a ballet. He says he approached Dance Theater of Harlem founder and artistic director Arthur Mitchell, who responded enthusiastically - even to the idea of seeing whether or not his ballet dancers could also sing.

"It's something that's never been done in the history of ballet," he said. "They did better when they had these three great [background] singers supporting them up there. So he [Arthur Mitchell] said 'Great.' We'll put lavalieres [body microphones] on all of them and they'll sing, which is the first time that's been done. Oh, there are so many 'firsts' in this show."

Jack Wrangler adds that everyone involved in the new St. Louis Woman ballet are leading professionals in the worlds of theater, opera and dance. From the set designer to costume designer - they all came together to work on this project, which had no guarantee of success.

"Our choreographer, who's very adventuresome, will try anything once," he said.

Choreographer Michael Smuin is an acclaimed artist who has worked in both theater and film and is founder of the Michael Smuin Dance Company in San Francisco. He says the music of St. Louis Woman "screamed to be danced to."

"The dance vocabulary is huge. The backbone of it is classical ballet. And we put that through the prism of this music, but it's eccentric, it's musical comedy, it's jazz, it's tap, it's vaudeville, it runs the gamut," he said. "It is what the music is. I mean the music tells you what it is. And if you stay out of the way and do what you're told, it comes out pretty well."

"Pretty well" is an understatement, based on Michael Smuin's observations of audience members on opening night.

"Oh, my God, the opening night was 'rock and roll,'" he said. "It was like, they stood up, they sat down, they stood up, there were three standing ovations and that was during the performance!"

But the real driving force behind the creation of St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet is singer Margaret Whiting. Ms. Whiting, who is married to producer Jack Wrangler, is president of the Johnny Mercer Foundation, an organization dedicated to nurturing young musicians. Ms. Whiting has recorded more than 500 songs over the years, introducing some of the greatest pop standards of all time. Her career was nurtured by lyricist Johnny Mercer who had worked with her father, composer Richard Whiting.

"I thought of Harold and Johnny who loved this show," she said. "I was very close to St. Louis Woman when it first opened. Johnny Mercer called me up on the phone and said, 'I have song for you to sing and see if you like it. He came in from Hollywood. So I sang and said, 'Like it? Whoah!' And they had me record it ahead of the show and we had big hit. And that helped with the show at first. But still, it didn't' succeed as it should have."

But in spite of the beauty of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's score, the libretto of St. Louis Woman was plagued with problems. Set in an African-American community at the turn of the 20th century, critics accused the musical of propagating racial stereotypes. Margaret Whiting describes the new Dance Theater of Harlem production as "perfect."

"It was written for the ballet company, I believe, from heaven," she said. "And I think Harold [Arlen] and Johnny [Mercer] are watching us."

Margaret Whiting says she is encouraged by the audience response to the expanded forms of dance presented in St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet. She says she thinks this "hybrid ballet" may have far reaching effects.

"Well, it's going to get every ballet company in the country or the world now to come up with new ballets," Ms. Whiting said. "There's been a kind of thing where people haven't been very creative. But this ballet opened and people are buzzing about it and talking about it. And I think, frankly, for the entire ballet world, this kind of ballet will stimulate the use of dancers from all over the world and from every country."

St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet, which premiered in July at New York's Lincoln Center as part of its annual festival, is touring now through 2004 throughout the United States and Europe. Talks are underway among Broadway producers to expand the ballet even more into a full-fledged musical. Almost 60 years after the failure of St. Louis Woman on Broadway, perhaps the fate of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's favorite score will have a happy outcome after all.