King of Pop Invades Popo in Leonce and Lena

Review: US premiere of Christian Spuck’s Leonce and Lena in Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

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As the action in the US premiere of Christian Spuck’s Leonce and Lena reached its climax, King Peter of Popo stepped forward on the Knight Theater stage to make an important announcement – to the audience, presumably, for the rest of the Charlotte Ballet cast stood respectfully and expectantly behind him. King Peter struggled mightily to express himself, never quite succeeding in uttering a syllable, though I’m sure I heard a consonant.

Summoning up more power and determination, the doddering King of Popo snapped his fingers. Behold, the house lights came on. But still, when he faced us squarely, no words came out. Well-heeled ballet mavens would have scanned their programs by now and read the synopsis, knowing before Peter’s abortive attempts at speech that he was probably announcing the upcoming wedding of his son, Prince Leonce, to Princess Lena of Pipi.

Or, since Leonce and Lena had fled their respective kingdoms back in Act 1, perhaps Peter was announcing a kingdom-wide search for the absent bride and groom-to-be. A reward for whoever found and returned them? That would certainly be in keeping with fairytale decorum.

That the ineffectual king snapped his fingers and brought the house lights back down was no longer a big surprise. But Spuck had plenty more shtick in reserve for James Kopecky, the dancer in Peter’s royal regalia who had pitifully shrunk away from us in defeat. Shedding his doddering persona, Peter busted a whole bevy of pop dance moves, including a stylish anthology of moves associated with the concerts and videos of Michael Jackson.

“You are the king!” I was tempted to shout.

There probably were shouts amid the hubbub of laughter and surprise that greeted this dramatic break from Peter’s previous character. You couldn’t doubt that Spuck’s intentions were largely comical, but if you found an edge of satire lurking beneath the laughs, you might also find it challenging to decide who or what the targets could be.

A powdered periwig that detonates in the opening scene reliably tells us that ceremonial pretensions were definitely in Spuck’s crosshairs. The fawning and fussing of Peter’s underlings are also mercilessly exposed in the costume designs of Emma Ryott and Spuck’s choreography. Repeatedly in Popo, the presumed grandeur of fairytale kingdoms – or European kingdoms so obscure they might as well be fairytales – is repeatedly punctured. Peter’s first wedding announcement is scrawled on a humble blackboard, with interlocking rings hastily drawn with chalk, while Leonce listens to his music on his friend Valerio’s wee boombox instead of adjourning to an dignified spinet.

What Charlotte Ballet subscribers are most likely to overlook, until Kopecky’s King of Pop antics conk them over the head with it, is that Spuck’s prime satirical target is ballet itself. Robotic choreography, such as we see in Leonce and Lena among Peter’s sycophants and later among the Italian townspeople, has been part of the balletic arsenal since the days of Copéllia and Nutcracker in the 19th century. That isn’t where I was finding Spuck’s fresh assault on ballet conventions. No, it’s the royal lovebirds who are most hilariously antithetical to ballet.

Instead of the customary piety, elegance, or bookishness that might mark Leonce and Lena as kindred spirits, Spuck points up their pure boredom. Nor is this mere low-key eyeroll boredom. This is enervated, prone, cradling-your-chin-in-the-palm-of-your-hand boredom. While Leonce is moping on the floor, he does something even more unbefitting the heir to the Popo throne: he propels himself along the ground like an inchworm. Backwards.

The alienation that Lena and Leonce feel toward their parents is demonstrated, in a charmingly antiquated way, by the music they listen to. At court, we’re likely to hear the waltzes of Johan Strauss Jr., including the majestic Emperor Waltz. Lena and her loyal Governess prefer to unwind with a coy version of Cole Porter’s sexually suggestive “Let’s Do It,” while the less fiercely rebellious Leonce and Valerio crank up Burl Ives’ greatest hit, “A Little Bitty Tear” on the boombox.

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Less downcast than their besties, Peter Mazurowski as Valerio and Alessandra Ball James as the Governess get to sparkle more at their respective castles before the young royals hit the road – and wear the less humdrum costumes. They also spark more readily with each other when the quartet meets up in Italy. Love at first sight between Leonce and Lena is more of a slow burn and more passionate, allowing Colby Foss as the Prince and Sarah Hayes Harkins to fire up a singularly quirky pas de deux that will linger in your memory. Notice that Stuck sticks them side-by-side in this whirlwind courtship, not forgetting how he established their characters.

Meanwhile, Mazurowski and James’ settle into a comedy groove that has belonged to second-banana couples on stage and on screen since before the days of Guys and Dolls. Then the zany Finale, when they return to Popo to crash the wedding – and stop the show almost as hysterically as Kopecky.

Plotwise, where ballet and its mute characters always have difficulties in storytelling, Spuck gets a little haphazard when Leonce and Lena part from each other in Italy. There’s a bit of Cinderella-at-midnight confusion to how Lena abruptly leaves Leonce. So it’s quite possible on your way home, after the full happily-ever-after tale has been told, that you’ll be asking yourself: when love first exploded between them, did Leonce and Lena even tell each other who they were?

During the final scene; filled with masquers, eccentrics, a wedding bower, and the king’s antics; you’ll likely be too entertained to worry about tying up such stray details. You might, on the other hand, miss Chelsea Dumas’ pouting as Rosetta and her unsuccessful flirtations. Pursuing Leonce in the opening act, Dumas neatly livened the action and underscored the Prince’s ennui. Maybe Spuck could bring Rosetta back to ply her charms on queenless King Peter! Such monkeyshines would be quite apropos in Popo.

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