Welcome to the fourth annual Jazz Hand Awards—aka "the Jazzies"—where we rate the danciest new shows shining on Broadway.
The Jazzie for Most Authentic Afro-Caribbean Moves Goes to... "Once on This Island"
(Center, left) Alex Newell as Asaka, mother of the Earth with Hailey Kilgore as Ti Moune in "Once on This Island" (photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy Boneau/Bryan Brown)
Once on This Island, which originally opened in 1990, is back in a Broadway revival playing at Circle in the Square. Set on a vibrant island, the story follows a young peasant girl named Ti Moune (played by newcomer Hailey Kilgore). After the gods of the island spare her life during a storm, they set her off on an experiment, to see if love really does conquer death. The dancing throughout the show is a soulful mix of authentic Afro-Caribbean moves, choreographed by Camille A. Brown (artistic director of Camille A. Brown and Dancers and a four-time Princess Grace Award winner). "Specific dances we focused on here are djouba, contredanse, and rabòday (known collectively as konbit), and the Afro-Cuban Orisha dances: Eleguá, Shango, Ogun, and Oya," Brown says. "I also consulted with dancer and choreographer Maxine Montilus, who is Haitian-American and specializes in Afro-Haitian and Afro-Cuban dance."
The Jazzie for Most Classic Choreography Goes to... "My Fair Lady"
(From left) Harry Hadden-Paton as Henry Higgins, Lauren Ambrose as Eliza Doolittle, and Allan Corduner as Colonel Pickering in "My Fair Lady" (photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy Lincoln Center Theater)
The iconic 1956 Broadway musical starring Julie Andrews (which became a beloved 1964 film starring Audrey Hepburn), My Fair Lady returns to the Great White Way this season at Lincoln Center Theater with new choreography by Christopher Gattelli. Filled with lush waltzes and traditional musical theater moves, the show follows the story of Eliza Doolittle (Lauren Ambrose), a working-class girl who meets Professor Henry Higgins (Harry Hadden-Paton). Higgins takes it upon himself to teach Eliza to speak proper English and makes her over completely, in order to pass her off as a real lady. Don't expect the focus to be on choreography throughout, but the cast really gets to let loose and break out of their Victorian facades during the showstopping number "Get Me to the Church on Time," which is full of raucous dancers doing the can-can.
The Jazzie for Fetchest Hard-Hitting Hip-Hop Moves Goes to... "Mean Girls"
(From left) Erika Henningsen as Cady Heron, Ashley Park as Gretchen Weiners, Taylor Louderman as Regina George, Kate Rockwell as Karen Smith, and Barrett Wilbert Weed as Janis with the cast of "Mean Girls" (photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy Boneau/Bryan Brown)
Mean Girls on Broadway is just plain fun, thanks mostly to its beyond-hilarious and perfectly plastic main trio: Taylor Louderman as queen bee Regina George, Ashley Park as insecure follower Gretchen Wieners, and Kate Rockwell as airy and flighty Karen Smith. And it definitely doesn't hurt that funny woman Tina Fey wrote the book, based on her 2004 cult-classic film. As in the movie, the musical follows the naïve Cady (Erika Henningsen) as she navigates American high school life after being homeschooled in Africa by her scientist parents. On her first day, she meets Damian (Grey Henson) and Janis (Barrett Wilbert Weed), two sarcastic and witty outcasts who craft a plan to make Cady popular—for the sole purpose of ruining the evil Regina George's life. The dancing, according to director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw (known for The Book of Mormon and Something Rotten!), is an eclectic mix of hip hop, contemporary, and classic musical theater. There's even a full-on tap number called "Stop," performed masterfully by Damian and the ensemble, and some smart desk-ography whenever the kids are in class.
The Jazzie for Most Dance Genres Packed into a Single Show goes to... "SpongeBob SquarePants"
(From left) Lilli Cooper as Sandy, Ethan Slater as SpongeBob, and Danny Skinner as Patrick in "SpongeBob SquarePants" (photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy Boneau/Bryan Brown)
Mermaids with tails of rubber gloves, jellyfish made out of umbrellas, sparkling tuxedoed sea anemones: SpongeBob SquarePants has all that and more. The vibrant show follows beloved cartoon characters SpongeBob (played by Ethan Slater, who's making his Broadway debut), Patrick (Danny Skinner), Sandy (Lilli Cooper), and Squidward (Gavin Lee) through Bikini Bottom as a volcano threatens their very existence. The kooky, over-the-top production pulls out all the stops as SpongeBob and his friends try to save their town from impending doom—and the diverse choreography by Christopher Gattelli (of Newsies fame) doesn't disappoint. "Because the show has music written by so many different artists—ranging from T.I. to They Might Be Giants to Lady Antebellum to Panic! at the Disco—the physicality of each number, and the way each character moves, is vastly different," says dance captain Juliane Godfrey. "Expect a little bit of everything: There's hip hop, jazz, modern, and a full-blown tap number."
The Jazzie for Coolest Ballet at a Clambake Goes to... "Carousel"
Dancers in "Carousel" (photo by Julieta Cervantes, courtesy DKC/O&M)
A huge hit when it first opened on Broadway in 1945, Carousel—the second musical written by iconic duo Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II—follows an ill-fated couple: carousel barker Billy Bigelow (Joshua Henry) and millworker Julie Jordan (Jessie Mueller). The original was dance-heavy, with lots of sweeping ballet sequences choreographed by Agnes de Mille, so who better to update the dancing this time around than New York City Ballet resident choreographer Justin Peck? Peck's innovative movement is truly stunning, a cross between classically balletic and imaginative contemporary moves with lots of soaring jumps and turns. You'll even see the dancers actually embodying the carousel. "The dance is woven into the fabric of the show, and seems as natural as walking or breathing," says ensemble dancer Laura Feig. "The emotions of the story build until they explode into dance, the only logical next step." The cast also features two NYCB stars making their Broadway debuts: principal Amar Ramasar plays the cold-hearted criminal Jigger Craigin and soloist Brittany Pollack performs as Louise, the teenage daughter of Julie and Billy.
The Jazzie for Prettiest Dancing in a Snowstorm Goes to... "Frozen"
Kristoff dancing with Anna and the Hidden Folk of the Mountains in "Frozen" (photo by Deen Van Meer, courtesy Disney Theatrical Group)
Based on the hit Disney film, Frozen is one of the coolest (pun intended) new shows on Broadway. Like the movie, it follows royal sisters Anna (Patti Murin) and Elsa (Caissie Levy) as they navigate Elsa's magical wintry powers. Diehard fans will be happy to know that all the movie's best moments make appearances. (Yes, you'll hear "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" and "Let It Go"!) But there are also lots of new additions to love, like the super-creative choreography by Rob Ashford. The dancing features beautiful waltzes in the palace, a festive maypole dance, adorably quirky moves for Anna, and a high-energy number from the kingdom's troll-like Hidden Folk of the Mountains. And be prepared for lots of jaw-dropping stage magic as Elsa creates some stunning winter scenery, including a towering ice castle.
A version of this story appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "Presenting Dance Spirit's Annual Jazz Hand Awards."