Prim and proper uptight elderly Southern belle meets free-spirited foul-mouthed gay jokester for Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks in Richard Alfieri’s touching Broadway comedy, now getting a spiffy revival at Burbank’s Falcon Theatre.

This charming two-character star vehicle started its life at the Geffen Playhouse in 2001, in a production which featured Uta Hagen and David Hyde Pierce, then transferred to Broadway with Polly Bergen and Mark Harmon in the leading roles. Geffen/Broadway director Arthur Allan Siedelman and choreographer Kay Cole are once again in the driver’s seat for this funny and heartwarming new incarnation of Alfieri’s play, which now stars Constance Towers and Jason Graae.
Towers plays the elderly but still stunning South Carolina born-and-bred Lily Harrison who, bored with her humdrum life in St. Petersburg Beach, Florida, decides to hire a dance instructor to spice things up a bit. Graae is 40something Michael Minetti, whose irreverent sense of humor doesn’t quite click with Lily’s seemingly straight-laced nature. Example—when the Florida matron asks whether to pay him now or after the lesson, Michael replies with tongue in cheek, “Just put your money on the mantle—like for a hooker,” leading to audience suspicion that this first dance lesson is going to be the last.  Michael doesn’t help things when he protests, “This is my first fucking lesson, you tight-assed old biddy.”  Fortunately, Lily gives him a second chance.  How could she not, when Michael tells her how much he needs this job, especially now that his wife is ill and can’t continue working at the Seminole Cat Dog Bird and Snake Hospital.

Soon enough, Lily and Michael are on a first name basis and dancing the swing to the Andrews Sisters’ Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, and Lily is ready for her second dance lesson the following week.
It’s South of the Border time a week later when Michael arrives dressed head to toe in black gaucho suit and hat (with accent to match), only to be greeted by Lily’s “I’m not sure I want to associate with a liar.” It seems that Lily called every animal hospital in town and there’s no Mrs. Minetti working in any of them.
Upon learning that Lily’s husband is a Baptist minister, Michael tells her it’s no wonder he had to lie to her about his marital status (and sexual orientation). “Don’t blame me because you’re in the pantry,” shoots back Lily to the “passive aggressive queen with a bad attitude in a Zorro outfit.”
Still, once again, Lily is charmed by the man and the music, and in no time she’s getting back into the swing of things. No, not swing. This time it’s the tango.
Lesson number three is the waltz, with Lily answering the door dressed to the nines in a flowing floor-length pastel gown. When Michael obliges her request to zip her up, he remarks that she has a back “as pretty as a strudel,” to which Lily replies, “Yeah. Pasty and flaky.”  Lily may be 68 (or perhaps a tad older), but she can give as good as she can get. Soon, however, Lily is facing an angry gay man in a black tuxedo asking, “Where’s your Southern Baptist husband?” Turns out that Lily hasn’t been so honest about herself either.
As Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks moves into week four (the Foxtrot), week five (the Cha-Cha) and week six (Contemporary Dance), Michael realizes that he’s been as guilty of prejudging Lily as he’s accused her of being about him.  Instructor and pupil bond, reveal more secrets (including some pretty surprising ones), and begin filling in the gaps in each other’s lives.  (Do you really think it could be otherwise?) 

There are a number of funny running gags.  Lily keeps getting calls from Ida, her downstairs neighbor, whose one remaining sense is that of hearing. Even with the music turned way down, she’s on the phone to complain the second Michael pushes play on his boombox.  Ida’s short term memory isn’t what it used to be and by the end of each call, she’s forgotten her reason for phoning, and she and Lily are on the best of terms again. There are also Michael’s off-color comments on each dance step.  When he and Lily do the swing, he tells her, “Oh lady, you’ll be waking up in the barracks tomorrow!”  And when Michael sees Lily’s foxtrot outfit, he compliments her on her “Cuban heels, you seductive slut.”

After seven years with these two characters, Director Siedelman clearly knows them like the back of his hand, and in Towers and Graae he has a couldn’t-be-better cast.

70something Towers retains the patrician beauty that has been her hallmark since her first TV appearances in the 1950s. As Lily, she displays a wry sense of humor, crackling chemistry with costar Graae, and real dramatic skills in the play’s moving final scenes.  Graae, a triple threat entertainer if there ever was one, is the perfect choice for Michael, a Tracy to Towers’ Hepburn, who like his leading lady gives a performance of great humor increasing depth.  Whenever the two start dancing (kudos as always to choreographer Cole the great), there is magic on the Falcon stage.

Set designer Eric J. Larson has created a snazzy Florida ocean view condo all in pastels, exquisitely lit by Donna and Tom Ruzika.  (Watch how the lighting oh so subtly dims in the play’s more intimate scenes, and the way the Ruzikas light up the sky seen past Lily’s balcony, particularly in a breathtaking sunset.)  Helen Butler has created a different costume for each performer for each of the play’s seven scenes (yes, there is a “Bonus Lesson”), Lily’s a study in class and elegance and Michael’s a potpourri of dance appropriate duds, including a particularly Sinatraesque one for the Foxtrot. Phil Allen deserves high marks as well for the show’s sound design.

With its tale of a Southern Baptist preacher’s wife and a very out big city gay man who come to understand and even love each other, Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks couldn’t come at a more appropriate time.  If only a few percentage points more Californians had taken Lily’s journey…  

Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
November 5, 2008
                                       Photos: Michael Lamont

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