March 21-27, 2007

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'Blue Suede Shoes'

Photograph by Robert Shomler
Long Tall Sally: Catharine Grow puts the moves on Daniel Gwatkin in 'Blue Suede Shoes.'

Made In the Suede

Ballet San Jose shakes, rattles and rolls on pointe in 'Blue Suede Shoes'

By Marianne Messina

JITTERBUG ON POINTE! Who would have thought? Blue Suede Shoes, Ballet San Jose's amazing, nonstop series of "Ooh" and "Ahh" moments, cobbles together 36 of Elvis' hits into a neat little plotline full of dazzle, color and incredible dancing. Although generally the entertainment world seems a bit tetched from Elvis overexposure, this irresistible show gives us Elvis without the Elvis. Instead, well-trained dancers who shake, rattle and roll (plus toe, split and leap) to wild, hopping swing beats make it clear how Elvis' music inspired a social phenomenon and narrated an era.

Nahat's clever concept groups Elvis songs into rapid-fire medleys for seven distinct scenes (with bright, exciting sets). Amid the ensemble scene "High School," we meet the three main characters, Arthur (a comical Ramon Moreno in thick oversize glasses), Raymond (the nimble Preston Dugger) and varsity boy Johnny (Peter Hershey gone blond and '50s-cool).

When Sally (Catharine Grow) emerges from the hallowed halls, orange-yellow-toned columns at the top of a staircase, every male student faints dead away. Grow's stunning, hourglass-form-fitting outfit shows why costume designer Bob Mackie is in such demand among Hollywood stars. And Grow knows how to wear sexy—her lines, often on pointe; her gestures, hand on swaying hips; her batting eyelashes. Poor Arthur tries to win her—a humorous image compounded during a slow dance when Moreno's head barely reaches Grow's (on pointe) shoulders. In spite of Arthur giving her a huge teddy bear (danced to "(Let Me Be Your Teddy Bear"), Sally goes for a player: the outrageously dressed Boss Man (Daniel Gwatkin in large dark shades and slacks a glitter of purple).

The story takes us from the Hot Dog Drive-in ("Hot Dog" and Tutti Frutti") to graduation day and a touching dance as Arthur's mom (Karen Gabay) says goodbye. There's a riotous scene at the army physical, in which let's just say moons are flashed. When the three soldiers return home, the world has changed (and so has Elvis with "In the Ghetto"). The boys get into a bit of trouble and end up in Jail ("Jailhouse Rock"), and Grow steams up everyone's glasses as their kinky, club-wielding jailer dressed in black, catlike vinyl and thigh-high boots, all trimmed in silver. But everyone moves on from that growth spurt to the finale dressed in white and glittering gold (Grow in a diamond suit, a la Ice Capades) as gold records drop from the rafters.

Nahat's treatment pays attention to the details in Elvis' lyrics. For example, the rose and the Bible that Arthur's mother gives him come back later in the bittersweet lyrics to "Mama Liked the Roses." Kenneth Keith's lighting design goes from brilliant to sublime—the red flashing lights of a train crossing on a darkened stage, the ultraviolet effects used sometimes full-on for an underground, nighttime mood and sometimes subtly so that certain costumes pop out at you. There's no way to record all the exceptional elements of this show—like the intriguing dance moves of the girls in the carousel clock.

The evening's program opens with Twyla Tharp's short and sweet "Baker's Dozen." Trios or sets of couples spritz onto the stage, frolic in little bursts of surprise all over, then exit. The watchword for this piece is "Don't blink." In addition to overlapping action, some of the most amazing moments of éclat happen in the wings, just before a couple exits.

Ballet San Jose performs Blue Suede Shoes and Baker's Dozen Thursday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 1:30 and 8pm and Sunday at 1:30pm at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $25-$78. (408.288.2800)

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