ORT Productions’ Beauty and the Beat begins with a trio of dancers (Kelly Hogan, Carrie Monger, and Amy Scaringe) entering in formation into the graffitied performance space of the Blind Whino, shaking hands and taking seats amongst the audience.
They are dressed in blue and white summer wear one expects to find at any department store this time of the year, striking poses as if trying to elicit one another’s gaze and ours. Soon they are exchanging words about the different flavors of seltzer available at Trader Joe’s and about enrolling their children in Tiny Teeny-Bopper Mermaid Camp.
Their attention shifts onto a new neighbor. A man (Ken Hays) who at first appearance has no kids, no dog, no friends, and they seem irked that when he is on his daily neighborhood run, he will not be distracted by their need to fall under his male gaze. He appears to be building something in his basement. The basic setup can be the first act of any number of stories in numerous genres, ranging from a suspenseful noir, to magical realism, to romantic comedy, to (as hinted by the title) modern fairytale.
While Hogan, Monger, and Scaringe are capable dancers, and Jane Franklin’s choreography often creates interesting moving shapes by combining ballet-informed modern technique with calisthenics and gestures, as a piece of dance theater, there’s not much here.
The three women are never developed into separate characters. Their movement vocabulary does not distinguish them from one another, nor does their dialogue. Outside of a few accidental facts (one has a son who is interested in baseball while the other two have daughters who are interested in mermaids; one has a pine tree) they are made indistinguishable and interchangeable stereotypes of nosy bourgeoise housewives who have no real interests of their own except a male neighbor who largely wishes to be left alone.
There is a benefit to such uniformity in a dance company, but when branching out into the world of movement theater, differences can be a virtue, especially with such a naturalistic storyline as this. It is not sufficient that the man is distinguished by being more introverted (or is he?) or that Hays is both male and does not have a stereotypical male modern dancer body (though he moves well when he is called upon to do so).
The book, also by Franklin (AKA Betty Albright), has a few crowd-pleasing moments with familiar lines from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the Ronald White and Smokey Robinson classic “My Girl,” and Tom Waits’ “What’s He Building in There,” but rather than informing the choreography, or advancing the storyline, or even exploring the characters much, the words seem incidental.
Even when an interesting concept like prosopagnosia (the neurological condition known as “face-blindness”) is thrown out there, it’s merely thrown out there when there are so many directions it could have gone in terms of narrative and choreography. Beauty and the Beat seems to be trying to get to the moral of “a stranger is just a friend you don’t know” but its characters seem to barely get to know one another and we barely get to know them.
Running Time: 50 Minutes, with no intermission.