To some people, hell is fire and brimstone. To others it's - "burn, baby, burn" - line dancing in a white suit and platform shoes, a la Studio 54, circa 1978.
Karen Getz, a Philadelphia choreographer, dancer and actor, opened the Live Arts Festival / Philly Fringe Thursday night at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre with the world premiere of Disco Descending, a groovy and often hilarious take on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. It's the second part of Getz's trilogy about middle age that began with Suburban Love Songs, premiered at the 2006 festival.
Getz works not with dancers but with actors - many of whom are her pals from the improv group ComedySportz - teaching them to move. (As the Bee Gees sang, "You should be dancing, yeah.")
And while Disco Descending is listed as theater in the festival bulletin, Getz refers to it in the program notes as a comic-actors' ballet. It's almost entirely danced, with no dialogue and just one song sung by the eight-member cast. That song, a tribute from Orpheus (Dave Jadico) to Eurydice (Jen Childs), is "Lady," which I only later remembered was written and originally performed by the aptly named band Styx. Orpheus accompanies the cast not on the traditional lyre but a ukulele.
Disco Descending is highly entertaining, but still needs polishing; though only 55 minutes long, it has its slow spots. The group dances and more humorous sections feel well-rehearsed, but the touching bits - such as when Orpheus, home in Westchester, N.Y., remembers his late wife and they slow-dance next to but apart from each other - are slightly awkward. So are many of the harder moves, such as the lifts performed by Childs and Pete Pryor, who plays the lord of the underworld.
Jadico's is the most fully realized part: geek, musician, and a man so desperate to get his wife back that he follows her to the underworld, dons leather pants, and gets down like John Travolta. His physical comedy is dy-no-mite! - unmatched in the cast.
The men, including the lanky Pryor and the more ample Fred Siegel as Hermes, move especially well and take the most risks in their dancing. They also have far larger parts than the women and get nearly all the laughs.
Getz clearly is the cast's best dancer (she was dance captain and featured in the movie Dirty Dancing), which shines through in her smaller role as one of the three heads of Cerberus, the hound that guards the gates of hell. But overall, Cerberus (Mary Carpenter and Dawn Falato are the other heads) is a weak part. How much leg-humping do we need?
Jadico also designed the minimal but dead-on '70s sets, including a far-out white plastic couch with orange flames (in hell) and a soft orange sofa with matching furry pillows (in Westchester).
Getz's choreography is witty and the show's song choices are out of sight. Just one of many appropriate lyrics: "All we are is dust in the wind."
She reworked Suburban Love Songs after its Live Arts/Fringe premiere and it got rave reviews when it opened with 1812 Productions in April. Disco Descending could be just as promising with some massaging and more rehearsal.