What becomes a legend most?

When the legend in question is Oscar-nominated film icon Leslie (An American In Paris, Lili, Gigi, The L-Shaped Room, etc., etc., etc.) Caron, what becomes the legend most is a triumphant return to the stage in Richard Alfieri’s Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks. Add to the equation six-time Ovation Award winner David Engel as Miss Caron’s onstage partner and what you have at the Laguna Playhouse is a production Broadway can only wish were on the Great White Way.

tn-1000_sixdancelessons-1 Remaining every bit as stunning as she was during her Hollywood heyday, Miss Caron takes centerstage as (presumably French-born-&-bred) South Carolina matron 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.

Engel gets equal stage time as Michael Minetti, a 40something ex-Broadway chorus boy whose irreverent sense of humor doesn’t quite click with Lily’s seemingly straight-laced nature. Take for instance when Mrs. Harrison asks whether she should pay now or after the lesson and Michael replies with tongue in cheek, “Just put your money on the mantle—like for a hooker.” And it’s not much later in Lesson One that Michael dares to call Lily “a tight-assed old biddy.” Ouch!

tn-1000_sixdancelessons-5 Fortunately for anyone eagerly anticipating two and a half hours with a silver-screen legend, Lily does give her dance instructor a second chance. Then again, how could she not, when illness has forced Michael’s veterinarian wife to quit her job at the Seminole Cat, Dog, Bird, & Snake Hospital and her husband to moonlight?

Though Michael seems as improbably married to a woman as Lily is to be sixty-eight (as she claims), the truth soon comes out and before long our two stars are dancing the swing on a first name basis and Lily is ready for lesson number two.

It’s South of the Border time a week later when Michael arrives dressed gaucho style, only to be greeted by Lily’s “I’m not sure I want to associate with a liar!” (It seems that she called every animal hospital in town and there’s no Mrs. Minetti working in any of them.) And then there’s that little matter of Michael’s “alternative lifestyle.”

In Michael’s defense, Lily’s husband is a Baptist minister and therefore hardly the sort to take to his wife’s relationship with a “passive aggressive queen with a bad attitude in a Zorro outfit,” though Lily refuses to accept that as an excuse. “Don’t blame me because you’re in the pantry,” she shoots back. (Perhaps that’s how they say it en France.)

tn-1000_sixdancelessons-2 Luckily, Lily is once again charmed by the man and the music, and in no time at all she’s getting back into the swing of things—or perhaps that should be “the tango.” After that, it’s the foxtrot, then the cha-cha, and finally contemporary dance.

Along the way, Michael—and we in the audience—realize that he’s been as guilty of prejudging Lily as he’s accused her of being about him, and it should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen an “Odd Couple Comedy” that instructor and pupil soon find themselves bonding, revealing more secrets, and filling in the gaps in each other’s lives. (Do you really think it could be otherwise?)

Playwright Alfieri has a gift for the running gag, like the calls Lily keeps getting from a downstairs neighbor whose one remaining sense would appear to be that of hearing. Michael’s off-color remarks provide another series of guaranteed laughs. When he and Lily do the swing, he quips, “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.”

That director Michael Arabian is best known for edgier fare like this past January’s God Of Carnage makes him an inspired choice to helm a heartstrings-tugger like Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks, the master director keeping both characters absolutely authentic throughout, warts and all.

It helps too to have actors as innately likeable as Miss Caron and Engel, the duo insuring that even their characters’ less sympathetic aspects never mask the human hearts that beat inside.

tn-1000_sixdancelessons-3 Of course it is Leslie Caron we’re talking about here, and if a bit of math reveals her to a few years older than the age Lily eventually cops to, you’d never know it. The more curve-hugging the gown, the more gorgeous Miss Caron looks, and her dancer’s legs haven’t aged a day since she kicked up her heels with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire back in the far ago ‘50s. As for the even bigger question of whether she’s up to the demands of well over two hours of nonstop back-and-forth dialog with her costar with just an intermission to catch her breath, Miss Caron passes that test with flying colors as well, scarcely missing a beat, and investing Lily with such spunk and grace and joie de vivre that if you weren’t already in love with Leslie Caron since Lili, you’ll fall for Lily in a heartbeat. (And her blend of accent français and Southern drawl is delicious.)

As for Miss Caron’s leading man, theater stars don’t get any bigger, brighter, or more dazzling on this coast than Engel, who may have cut his teeth on (and won his Ovations for) song-and-dance men like Crazy For You’s Bobby Child, but who proves himself every bit as masterful when singing nary a note and dancing only in snippets (albeit exquisitely so). It’s a particularl treat, joy, and honor to see Engel playing as multi-faceted a gay man as Alfieri has written and making him as real as real can be. The love that develops between Lily and Michael couldn’t be more palpable, making it clear that Miss Caron has found in Engel a worthy successor to the MGM greats with whom she shared the silver screen.

Donna McKechnie, a Broadway legend herself, has “musical staged” each of Six Lesson’s Six Dances. Need I say more?

A decision to set Alfieri’s 2001 play in the now works for the most part given South Carolina’s “still evolving” attitudes (and the fact that Southern Baptists seem not to have evolved at all), though a remark about “all abortions” being illegal “back then” doesn’t jive with the updated timeline.

tn-1000_sixdancelessons-4 Scenic designer extraordinaire John Iacovelli has given Lily a gorgeous Florida ocean-view condo, each scene exquisitely—and distinctly—lit by D Martyn Brookwalter. Kate Bergh has created a terrific pair of costumes for each new lesson, Lily’s a study in elegance and class and Michael’s a potpourri of dance-appropriate duds, including a particularly Sinatraesque one for the foxtrot. Sound designer Phillip J. Allen provides a just-right musical backup for each dance genre (and some perfectly timed, intentionally irritating phone rings) while doing his best to ensure that we get all of Alfieri’s clever dialog. (Though I had no problem with Miss Caron’s volume, some patrons were overheard grousing that they couldn’t hear her, suggesting that adjustments could still be made.)

Michael Donovan is casting director. Vernon Willet is production stage manager, Mary K Klinger stage manager, and T.J. Kearney assistant stage manager.

When first I saw Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks back in November of 2008, a slim majority of California voters had just passed Prop 8, prompting this reviewer to wonder in print what might have happened had a couple percentage points more of them taken Lily’s journey.

Last night’s wholly positive reaction from an older, presumably conservative Orange County audience to Alfieri’s platonic love affair between Southern Baptist preacher’s wife and out-and-proud big-city gay man proves what a long way we’ve come in the past six years.

Then again, with Leslie Caron and David Engel taking audiences on a journey towards acceptance and understanding, that should hardly come as a surprise.

The Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

–Steven Stanley
May 7, 2014
Photos: Ed Krieger

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