Façade is a beautiful thing—a British seaside adventure spread out on the half moon shaped floor of the Milwaukee Theatre lobby. It’s Busby Berkeley meets Evelyn Waugh, 1920s bathing beauties cavorting along with a quartet from the leisure class set out in their best tans and tweeds. Beach balls rain down from the balconies; croquet mallets are deployed like canes without top hats; tourists ride a luggage cart as it careens about the space like a scene from a great screwball comedy.
A collaboration between Danceworks Performance Company, Milwaukee Opera Theatre and the Milwaukee Chamber Orchestra, the raw material of Façade is a curious, so called “entertainment” by the poet Edith Sitwell and composer William Walton. But it’s certain that the pair had a much more modest event in mind. (In fact, Frederick Ashton’s well known ballet uses Walton’s music but not Sitwell’s poetry.) In this version, 22 of the short poems are arranged to suggest something of a story—two couples depart for a seaside weekend and have a jolly good frolic (1920s style--not Mad Men late-1960s style).
The poems themselves are more nonsense verse than narrative. There are lots of references to the hijinks of pastoral gods and goddesses, and someone named Don Pasquito makes several appearances. Here’s an example from “Tango-Pasodoble”:
Thetis wrote a treatise noting wheat
is silver like the sea;
the lovely cheat is sweet as foam;
Erotis notices that she
Wheat-kings luggage, like Babel
Before the League of Nations grew –
So Jo put the luggage and the label
In the pocket of Flo the Kangaroo.
It’s all about the rhythm, obviously. Putting the poetry with the music, the four “singers” here—Niffer Clark, Diane Lane, Nathan Wesselowski and James Zager—take the meter seriously, as one has to do with an orchestra fox-trotting behind you. Wesselowski tackles some of the rapid fire pieces—think Gilbert & Sullivan in a surrealist mood—and the quartet take turns with the poems while acting and dancing with the rest of the ensemble.
The big problem here is the acoustics. Sitwell’s verse is wild and wacky—so it’s unlikely that anyone could keep up with the references and much of the meaning in a concert setting. But in the cavernous atrium, even wireless body microphones and well-placed speakers can’t keep the articulated lines from dissolving into mush. The music and voices are well-balanced, and the orchestra (conducted by Richard Hynson) sounds terrific. But many—if not most—of the lyrics muffle into rhythmically charged “blah-blah-blahs.” Even if the poetry doesn’t spin a tale, there’s something missing when real words turn into “fa-la-la-las.”
But even without words, there’s still plenty to take in and enjoy. Directed by MOT’s Jill Anna Ponasik and choreographed by Danceworks’ Dani Kuepper, Façade is a hoot—at once spectacle and gentle satire of spectacle. Working in a expansive space with audience all around, Kuepper has great fun spreading out the action—with trios and quartets scattered across your field of vision, making your eyes jump here and there. But she also creates witty magic with large unison ensembles (think 42nd Street in Brighton). Ponasik in turn uses the space inventively, using a railing as a hotel balcony, a luggage cart as locomotive, and turning the beach into a dance pavilion with a quick shuffle of actors.
It may seem a bit odd to head inside during this first spring-ish weekend, but if you’re looking for a gateway to summertime, an hour on the beach with the Façade folks is exactly what you need.