There's always something "let's put on a show!" about the Ballet of the Dolls. This can be charming (as I'll explain in a moment), but if you're not in the mood--if you've come in grumpy and would just like your entertainment straight up--please, then you're apt to be painfully aware of the mere humanness of it all. More so because the Dolls traffic in Broadway-esque productions--they tell stories through Myron Johnson's flashy, stylized, musically bound, and mostly familiar choreography; through the performers' dance-acting, and through their homemade costumes. Real Broadway, with the advantage of great heaps of capital, doesn't require much of the audience, just that they sit there with their eyes open while the great entertainment steamroller flattens them--so how can the Dolls compete?
Early on in their new holiday show, The Little Match Girl (based on Hans Christian Anderson's sad tale), I thought they couldn't. The opening scene is long, with many choreographic repeats, although it takes only a few minutes to grasp the match girl's plight. There's too much poorly timed physical comedy, and I didn't want to get into the show, frankly. Who wants to be drawn into caring about a hapless beggar-girl who you know is just going to freeze to death? I was relieved when the match girl's fantasies (which she sees each time she lights a match) pick up in dances of sparely-dressed marionettes and gypsies. It wouldn't be the holidays if the Dolls didn't get out their merry widows.
But somewhere along the way, I began to find myself participating. In one of the girl's fantasies, as she takes down her "long golden hair" (as the Tiger Lillies' backing operetta has it), three women in luxurious gem-tone cloaks spin around. Now, I can just see the Dolls at the fabric store, fingering these gaudy fabrics, buying a few yards, and then sewing them into these makeshift cloaks. The dance itself amounts mostly to showing off how the fabric looks under the stage lights. And yet the modest magic does work, and it prepares you for the simple beauty of the climactic scene, the match girl's ascension (and her death).
I'm not going to try to describe this scene, because any description would make it sound like less than it is. We always have to go some distance to meet the art (whatever it is), and we care more the more of ourselves we put into it. For this story, which is ultimately a sobering reminder of poverty in our midst, the Dolls' way of getting the audience involved is singularly appropriate. You don't want to care--you don't think you care--and then all at once you do. Instant holiday spirit. Charles Dickens would approve.
This same process works for the dancer playing the heroine, Jolie Meshbesher. Meshbesher does not have an immediately impressive presence: she's not tall or willowy, not magnetic. Instead, she seems a bit more like a child dancer, cheerful and studious. But first you notice a small jump, energetic and startlingly high; then it's her happy, straight arabesque; then her disciplined feet; then you realize that she does everything well; and then you're thinking to yourself, "She's really good." Meshbesher is the right dancer for this show, and she deserves a lot of credit for the Dolls' success here.
The Little Match Girl continues at the Ritz Theater through Dec. 28, ritztheaterfoundation.org