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Thank Heaven for Not-So-Little Girls: Dancing Miss Lily

Ed Rampell: What makes Lessons worth slipping into one’s ballet shoes for and dashing down to Laguna Beach to buy a ticket is the rare opportunity to see a living legend perform live -- 82-year-old French actress/dancer Leslie Caron.
Dancing Miss Lily

SIX DANCE LESSONS IN SIX WEEKS TheaterReview

Playwright Richard Alfieri’s two-acter two-hander Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks is a good, if very predictable, tale. But what makes Lessons worth slipping into one’s ballet shoes for and dashing down to Laguna Beach to buy a ticket is the rare opportunity to see a living legend perform live. 82-year-old French actress/dancer Leslie Caron’s first film role was opposite Gene Kelly as the gamin in 1951’s Best Picture Oscar winner, An American in Paris, co-directed by Kelly and Vincente Minnelli with that incomparable Gershwin score. Not too shabby a way to begin one’s screen career! In 1953 Caron was Oscar-nommed for playing the title role in the musical Lili and Minnelli directed her in another Best Picture Academy Award winner, as eponymous character in 1958’s Gigi, wherein Maurice Chevalier crooned Lerner and Loewe’s “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.”

In Lessons Caron plays Lily (wonder where they got the idea for that name from?), a set-for-life elderly woman living in a high rise above the Gulf at the epicenter of the High Renaissance of Retirement: Florida. Lily hires Michael Minetti (uh, not Minnelli, played with verve by Broadway veteran David Engel), a dance instructor from an Arthur Murray type of emporium, to give her private lessons. These tutorials in swing, tango, waltz, cha-cha, foxtrot and twist take place in Lily’s apartment, which is in a stunning set designed by John Iacovelli, with lighting by D Martyn Bookwalter that enhances the play’s tropical ambiance.

The dance lessons get off -- no pun intended -- on the wrong foot and the two very different personalities often clash. But, to make a long story short, as they cut the rug during the sextet of seminars, Lily and Michael drop their secrets and lies about matters such as marriage, age and more. As they remove their masks and their facades vanish, two lonely people open up to each other as they find true friendship. Their bonding is reminiscent of Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy, wherein another older, hardheaded Southern woman finds comfort, closeness and camaraderie with a hired hand, as their relationship transcends the employer-employee relationship and social barriers. In the case of Daisy the societal taboo was race; in Lessons its sexual preference. (The quick witted Michael, who often quips before he thinks, jokes about what happens when people marry outside of their gender.) They are ably directed by Michael Arabian, who helmed the memorable 2012 version of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot at the Mark Taper Forum.

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Dancing Miss Lily

Although only two thesps trod the boards, Caron and Engel -- a six-time Ovation Award winner -- have enough accolades and nominations to fill the stage in this production. (In addition to her two Oscar noms, Caron has won a Golden Globe and been nominated twice for that award, including for her work in 1961’s Fanny, which also co-starred filmdom’s professional Frenchman, Chevalier. In 2007 Caron scored an Emmy for guest starring in Law & Order: SVU.) In any case, the dynamic duo’s talent fills the playhouse, with choreography created by Donna McKechnie (who won a Tony for her performance in A Chorus Line), Engle can certainly hoof, while it is nothing short of a treat to see the great Caron twinkle her tootsies.

What a sheer joy it is to behold the one and only Leslie Caron, in the flesh. Watching her jitterbug and do the jerk, et al, now that she’s about the age Chevalier was supposed to be in Gigi, I couldn’t help but think: “Thank heavens for not-so-little girls.” Vive la Caron.

ed rampell

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks is playing Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 4:00 p.m. (the Saturday, May 31 show will be at 2:00 p.m.) and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through June 8 at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, CA 92651. For more info: (949) 497-ARTS; www.LagunaPlayhouse.com.

Ed Rampell 

L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” (See: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/.)