Syncopation is a sweet show. The title promises something a little offbeat, but in the end turns out to be quite a traditional romance, a fun show set in pre-war New York. It is light and frothy and definitely enjoyable, although ultimately perhaps a little insubstantial.
Syncopation is set in New York in 1912 and is the story of meatpacker-by-day-ballroom-dancer-by-night Henry Ribelow (Justin Stewart Cotta) and his almost accidental dance partner Anna Bianchi (Emma Palmer). The character of Ribelow is pretty much stable the whole way through – he is in love with dance, and he wants Anna to be in love with dance as he is. Anna's arc, however, is much more interesting. She starts life as a demure young woman with a dull family life and a dull fiancé; a girl who works in a beading factory and who has just lost a friend in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire; a girl who responds impulsively to Ribelow's ad in the newspaper – "Give your life a lift. Wanted: a dance partner to dance for royalty". Through the dance sessions, Anna's world opens up: quite apart from learning to let go and dance in public, she marches for women's suffrage, befriends the 'odd women' (early feminists) at the local railway station, and has an epic love affair. In the second act, when she is heavily involved with first wave feminism and with her new lover, she is at her most interesting. Indeed, I found it almost tragic when she turned away from that life: while Anna escapes from some of her bondage, she does not ultimately escape all of it. The ending of the show is played schmaltzy, saccharine – it felt like Anna was settling, removing herself from her path of personal growth.
Although I have my issues with the ending, Anna was my favourite part of the show. The scene where she lifted her skirts to reveal brilliant beaded stockings beneath was gorgeous, and the perfect image to capture her character. Despite her tendency to mug and overact (which, considering Cotta was also guilty of it, might have more to do with the direction than anything else), Palmer did a fine job of representing Anna's growth and unfurling as a person: she played Anna's transformation from caterpillar to butterfly beautifully. Cotta arguably had a harder task, considering a) Ribelow did not really grow as a character, and b) Ribelow definitely has a case of the Edward Cullen/Christian Grey creepies – he virtually stalks Anna around New York, following her home and spying on her when she's out. Cotta plays Ribelow as a sort of Prufrock, living a life of quiet desperation, clinging to dance as his one chance for greatness as middle age closes in on him, and his performance is very enjoyable.
Syncopation relies on these two characters – they are the only characters in it – and overall, they carry it beautifully. At two hours and forty minutes I did feel the show was too long – there was a lot of repetition and hence quite a lot that could be cut. What should not be cut, however, is the dancing. Both the plot and characters are expressed wonderfully in the ballroom routines, which Palmer and Cotta execute with absolute aplomb. I really enjoyed them, and although there is a LOT of dance in the show, I still think there could be more. This was where the syncopation promised in the title really did show itself – in their offbeat, often improvised dancing, you could really begin to understand why Ribelow and Anna liked each other, why these two mismatched people could be such good dance partners.
Syncopation is hardly an adventurous but certainly a fun night out (if you have three hours to spare). Don't go expecting to have your mind blown (and do expect to occasionally suspect Ribelow is a serial killer), but in the end, it is a very enjoyable, if somewhat saccharine, show.
A Critical Stages and The Follies Company Production
by Allan Knee
Venue: THE CONCOURSE THEATRE, CHATSWOOD
Dates: July 10 – 14, 2012
Tickets: Adult $47, Conc $42, Family (2 Adults/2 Conc)$160
Bookings: Ticketek – 1300 795 012 or www.ticketek.com.au
Venue: ILLAWARRA PERFORMING ARTS CENTRE
Dates: July 17 – 21, 2012
Tickets: Adult $59; Adult early week (Sun-Wed)/Conc/Group 8+: $54; Conc/Group 8+ early week $49; Under 30s $34*
*Transaction Fees apply
Bookings: Merrigong Box Office – 02 4224 5999 or www.merrigong.com.au
Venue: RIVERSIDE THEATRES, PARRAMATTA
Dates: July 24 – 28, 2012
Tickets: Adult $47, Australian Pensioner &Senior $42, Under 30s $37, Student & Child U16 $30, Groups 8+ $40*
*Transaction Fees apply
Bookings: Riverside Box Office – 8839 3399 or www.riversideparramatta.com.au