By Chuck Graham, TucsonStage.com
Claire Hancock as Nancy Lamar and Matt Bowdren as Jim “Jelly-Bean” Powell
A short story from F. Scott Fitzgerald's “Tales of the Jazz Age” as adapted by Cynthia Meier of the Rogue Theatre with choreography by Ashley Bowman of the Artifact Dance Project is pure poetry in motion.
Meier has successfully brought to the simply set Rogue stage the fluidity of feeling that fills this early Fitzgerald piece, “The Jelly-Bean.” His richly sensual language is presented in a soft Southern accent provided by Christopher Johnson as Clark Darrow, narrating the story of his good friend Jim Powell, played by Matt Bowdren, known around southern Georgia in the early 1920s as Jelly-Bean.
It was a general term of polite dismissal, Jelly-Bean, describing any man who had little regard for the importance of ambitious goals and the value of hard work. Powell we are told is the king of all Jelly-Beans. But Powell was a boyhood chum of Darrow, who is determined to be true to that friendship regardless.
Bringing all the motion to the poetry in this world premiere production is Bowman whose choreography is framed in several long sequences of thoroughly researched steps popular in the blue collar dance halls of the 1920s. Performing the dances are three couples – Bo Brinton, Daniel Diaz, Holly Griffith, Allie Knuth, Logan Moon Penisten and Lauren Renteria – wearing spot-on fashions of the times.
We can see there was lots more to the favorite moves of those flapper dippin', jazzy jivin' party people than the Charleston, that's for sure. This sextet gets lots of floor time, performing in ensembles and as couples, depicting not just the actual dances but the spirit of the fateful evening that is the heart of this dance drama.
Also onstage are pianist and music director Mary Turcotte in company with Derek Granger playing multiple reed instruments. Their bouncy swing style feels equally authentic.
Bowman is co-founder of Artifact with Claire Hancock, a career dancer who gets to test her chops here as an actor, playing Nancy Lamar, a girl who is way faster than anyone else in this rural community. Hancock makes her character quite believable, willing to flaunt the town's polite conventions so she could have more fun than all the other girls.
The endlessly versatile Bowdren, ever a favorite at the Rogue, gets to do some dancing in capturing Powell's personality, most at home in places where there is drinking, dancing and gambling going on.
Meier as director encourages a kind of Sad Sack attitude from Bowdren when he isn't caught up in Powell's adrenalin rush of rolling the dice for serious money. Powell does know he has the power to make those dice show the right numbers when it counts. But the rest of his life is a shambles of idleness.
When good-natured Darrow insists Powell come to the dance, he does. Nancy sees Powell and can't resist his Speakeasy charms. Her energy cracks open that Jelly-Bean shell and suddenly he's a new man. A real man.
But this is not the end of the story. Though “Tales of the Jazz Age” runs without an intermission at little more than an hour, Fitzgerald has more in mind for this Jelly-Bean. There are some truths that must be told.
“Tales of the Jazz Age” runs through July 24 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (plus 2 p.m. Saturday July 23), at the Rogue Theatre, 300 E. University Blvd., in the Historic Y. Tickets are $35; student rush 15 minutes before curtain when available (with valid student ID). For details and reservations, or visit www.theroguetheatre.org