That Old Magic

Superb performers in their late-days prime stage a cabaret

A concert by Paradigm's over-50 (and 60 and 70) master performers makes people in their age bracket, like me, think, "You go, guys!" while younger spectators who can't believe there's life after 40 may be reassured. Some numbers in Paradigm's suave little cabaret bring to mind the Ice Capades (or was it the Ice Follies?) act of my childhood. After all the virtuosic skating, clowning, and Disneyesque extravaganzas, a plumpish middle-aged couple billed as "the Old Smoothies" came out, elegantly dressed, and executed a Vienna waltz with a tender care and musicality that audiences adored.

There's little that's retro about Paradigm, here expanded to include others beside its three original members: artistic director Gus Solomons jr (a longtime colleague of mine at NYU), Carmen deLavallade, and Dudley Williams. Granted, Solomons's opener, Three Oh Three, is sort of an "old smoothies" affair, with Stuart Hodes, Alice Teirstein, and the choreographer decked out in tails and doing a kind of soft shoe, enlivened by amiable counterpoint, courteous gestures, double takes, mild flirtation, and much charm. Still, they're dancing to the Squirrel Nut Zippers, not Jerome Kern tunes on 78 RPM records.

Another trio by Solomons, Cold, is elegant in a different way, and much soberer, albeit with a touch of wit at the end. To Henry Purcell's "The Cold Song" (sung on CD by Klaus Nomi), Michael Blake, Keith Sabado, and Williams enter, wearing plain, dark clothing and walking with that hesitation step you see at graduations and weddings. As they move deliberately into various formations, they add gestures—different for each or differently timed —that answer the emotion in the song. The men are all wonderful (with Sabado especially adept at reined-in emotional extravagance).

Since the evening is structured as a cabaret show, Solomons serves as a winning compére, introducing each act, giving back stories, providing information left out of the program. And, in a sense, the various numbers allude to time-honored entertainment customs (albeit with a difference): the adagio team, the transformations with a prop, the classical singer, the pantomime, the monologuist.

In Solomons's adagio duet, The Impossible Being of Lightness, James Martin doesn't hoist Susanne Weiss over his head with one arm. In fact he does a lot of pensive soloing to Bach music for unaccompanied cello. Every time Weiss starts to enter, she sees that he's not finished and good humoredly exits again. After she gets a perkier solo turn (with him making periodic appearances), they dance together with pleasant camaraderie. No big deal. In Judith Ren-Lay's Falling Eagle (to wildly atmospheric music from her own CD, Out of Nowhere), she does something beyond just manipulating for effect the very long white feather boa she pulls out of her eccentric outfit. As she turns slowly in space, she tries on a number of bygone roles (lashing herself, posing as a cheerleader, prancing like a cartoon American Indian, beckoning like Uncle Sam). At the end, she's dropping feathers like snowflakes on her head.

In Solomons's Out Damned Spot, the extraordinary ballerina Martine Van Hamel—now possessing vocal chops as well—occasionally sings Schumann's "Der Nussbaum" along with Nomi. Wearing a long, dark green velvet gown, she moves with fluid clarity, not so much rubbing out bloodstains like Lady Macbeth as serenely plucking little bits of something from her arms and dropping them on the floor. Pantomime achieves a curious grandeur in an excerpt from Richard Move's 2004 Verdi for Three, setting up a moving tension between Maria Callas's dramatic singing and the miming by Blake, Williams, and Valda Setterfield. Setterfield enters with a bouquet (a needless distraction), and the men wear fancy shirts, but there's no diva behavior here. Standing solemnly in formation they execute gestures drawn from a sign language devised to communicate with babies. You can identify "book" and "drink" and other items, but many are mysterious ("squash a bug?") and, although their moves may be keyed to the song, the three perform with affectless serenity.

The program's monologue,Willie's Ladies Sing the Blues" is a tour de force of acting by the divine deLavallade. Wearing red gloves, red shoes, and a glamorous, slinky red gown designed by her husband, Geoffrey Holder, deLavallade creates the portrait of a lady with a past who drinks rather a lot in a bar where she's evidently a regular. The lady has also acquired a considerable knowledge of Shakespeare. The ironic "let-me-tell you-honey" text by deLavallade and Holder (who's also heard briefly singing on tape) is studded with speeches by Shakespearean women whose men done them very wrong. Astutely abetted by bass player Todd Nicholson, whom she beckons to play or desist with a imperious gesture, de Lavallade brings us Lady Macbeth's invocation of the powers of darkness, Emilia's outrage at Iago, and, best of all, Portia's passionate wifely speech to Brutus in Julius Caesar. DeLavallade even briefly channels Hamlet and Macbeth himself for a world-weary ending, before demanding some upbeat music and another drink. She's an actress of depth and power, a smart comedian, a delectably sinuous mover, and, gleaming in Driscoll Otto's lighting, an ageless beauty.

After a brief improvisation by Nicholson and Solomons, deLavallade re- emerges, flanked by Setterfield and Hope Clark, for an endearingly frivolous finale she choreographed—a preview of Sam's Party. Wearing identical loose-fitting light blue pants and long tunics, plus bright-colored Converse high-tops and big purple hats that hide most of their faces (costumes by Oana Botz-Ban), the three bustle about, pause, lean near to one another to gossip, and generally carry on as if gearing up for some important event.

This cabaret didn't feature a magician, but in innumerable ways the entertainers made magic happen.

 
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