Welcome to the fifth annual Dance Spirit Jazz Hand Awards—aka "The Jazzies"—where we honor the most dancetastic new Broadway shows. Some are shining onstage right now, others will open in the next few months, and they're all worth a ticket. Consider this your official guide to the season's latest and greatest.
The Jazzie for Best Dancing Through the Decades Goes to..."The Cher Show," currently running at the Neil Simon Theatre
(From left) Teal Wicks as Lady, Stephanie J. Block as Star, Cher herself, and Micaela Diamond as Babe (Rob Kim/Getty Images, courtesy Rubenstein PR)
Based on the life and career of iconic pop star Cher, The Cher Show is as over-the-top as the singer herself. Prepare yourself for a Vegas-like spectacle of feathers, glitter, lace, sequins, and lots of big wigs. (The show's costume designer, Bob Mackie, was one of Cher's favorites back in the day!) The jukebox-style musical takes us through Cher's journey, with three main Cher narrators—Babe (Micaela Diamond), Lady (Teal Wicks), and Star (Stephanie J. Block)—who represent the various phases of her life, from her shy, grade-school days to the "Sonny & Cher" variety show in the 1970s to her fierce solo career in the '80s and '90s.
Because Cher has had such a long, unconventional career, the choreography (by Christopher Gattelli, of Newsies fame) features moves from multiple decades. There are '60s frugs and twists, eccentric '80s jazz, and '90s-style hip hop. "The dancing in this show is the glue that holds the story and the songs together," says ensemble dancer Ashley Blair Fitzgerald. "Many of the numbers are montage scenes that show the passage of time." Highlights include a stylized Bob Fosse– and Jack Cole–inspired number to "The Beat Goes On" and a sultry, partnering-heavy piece to "Dark Lady."
The Jazzie for The Best Classic Broadway Jazz Goes to..."Kiss Me, Kate," currently running through June 2 at Studio 54
Corbin Bleu in rehearsal (Jenny Anderson, courtesy Polk & Co.)
Broadway purists, rest easy—you won't see any out-there contemporary choreo in this revival. Choreographer Warren Carlyle wasn't interested in updating the dance moves (it's a classic for a reason!), instead taking his inspiration from musical films of the 1940s, including Strike Up the Band, Babes on Broadway, Holiday Inn, and Yankee Doodle Dandy. "I felt a duty to uphold the standard of great dance on Broadway," Carlyle says. "The dancing in Kiss Me, Kate is classic musical theater, jazz, and American tap. It's a joyous celebration of dance and movement to one of the greatest scores ever written."
For those who aren't familiar with the musical, Kiss Me, Kate takes place in 1948 and is a show within a show, centering on a musical production of William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Kiss Me, Kate is super-funny and follows some passionate romances, including the onstage/offstage conflict between Fred Graham (The Taming's director, producer, and star) and his ex-wife and leading lady, Lilli Vanessi; and Lois Lane and her gambling boyfriend, Bill.
The original production of Kiss Me, Kate opened in 1948 and won the very first Tony Award for Best Musical in 1949. The tunes by Cole Porter include iconic hits like "Too Darn Hot," "So in Love," and "Always True to You in My Fashion." This staging features Broadway legend Kelli O'Hara as Lilli, Will Chase as Fred, the dance-tastic Corbin Bleu as Bill, and Stephanie Styles as Lois Lane.
The Jazzie for the Best Minimalistic, Modern Update Goes to..."Oklahoma!," currently running through January 19
Gabrielle Hamilton as the lead dancer (Paula Court, courtesy DKC/O&M)
You may be familiar with the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein show Oklahoma!, but this production brings a whole new look to the prairie. Mark Morris alum John Heginbotham reimagined the choreography, including its iconic dream ballet, first choreographed by Agnes de Mille. Dancer Gabrielle Hamilton performs the newly updated dream piece, which is completely unlike—and a bit more ambiguous than—the original. Most of the rest of the choreo is centered on social dances, like two-steps and country swing. But it's not just the dancing that's different: The whole production is scaled back. Instead of a sweeping, realistic set, this revival features a more intimate, bare-bones staging and a bluegrass band instead of a full orchestra.
The Jazzie for Coolest Can-Cans Goes to..."Moulin Rouge! The Musical," opening July 25 at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre
Karen Olivo as Satine and Aaron Tveit as Christian (Matthew Murphy, courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown)
Based on the 2001 cult-classic film by Baz Luhrmann, this production heads to the Great White Way full of all the eclectic extravagance that made the film a hit. From the second you walk into the theater, you'll be captivated by the vivid set, flanked by a sparkling red windmill and a giant blue elephant. As in the film, leading lady Satine (Karen Olivo) makes her entrance from the ceiling on a trapeze, and the show features hit songs from the movie, including "Lady Marmalade."
But there are lots of new experiences to take in, too. For one, the soundtrack is a pop medley, featuring over 70 songs by artists such as Lady Gaga, Florence + The Machine, OutKast, Lorde, Beyoncé, Elvis, Madonna, Elton John, and The Rolling Stones. And Sonya Tayeh's choreo is a nonstop, hypnotizing whirlwind of gritty contemporary movement. "You haven't seen the can-can done this way before,"
dancer Morgan Marcell says. "Sure, we're kicking our legs in skirts, but we're also atop a passerelle [footbridge] in heels, and we're daring and strong." It's a bohemian fever-dream you'll never want to end.
The Jazzie for Creepy-Crawliest Dancing Goes to..."Beetlejuice," currently running at the Winter Garden Theatre
(From left) Alex Brightman as Beetlejuice, Rob McClure as Adam, Kerry Butler as Barbara, Sophia Anne Caruso as Lydia, Leslie Kritzer as Delia, and Adam Dannheisser as Charles (Matthew Murphy, courtesy Polk & Co.)
The "ghost with the most" is headed to Broadway. Inspired by the 1988 Tim Burton movie, the musical follows the story of teenage Lydia, whose new house is haunted by a recently deceased couple and the demon Beetlejuice. Lydia, played by dancer Sophia Anne Caruso, gets a much bigger role in the musical. She's obsessed with the "being dead thing" because her mother passed away six months earlier. Beetlejuice, played by Alex Brightman (of School of Rock fame), also gets lots more stage time in the new production, acting as a narrator throughout. And there's quite a bit of dancing for both leads. "Alex and Sophia are fantastic dancers," choreographer Connor Gallagher says. "Neither of them were cast for their dance ability alone, so the fact that they're so game has been a gift. We've built the show around their talents."
The production also features tons of special effects, puppets, rock music, and some manically cool ensemble choreo. "The dance vocabulary is all over the map," Gallagher says. "There's hip hop, salsa, doo-wop, and a big, acrobatic vaudeville number. It's all rhythmically intricate and very athletic."
The musical also re-creates one of the film's most memorable and silly scenes: the dinner party where the ghosts take possession of guests' bodies, forcing them to dance to the Jamaican folk song "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)." "There's quite a bit of possession in our story, or moments where one character controls another character's body," Gallagher says. "It was fun to play with the different styles of movement each character generates during that."
Beware: This show isn't intended for kids under 10, as Beetlejuice's jokes are a tad dirtier than the ones in the film.
The Jazzie for the Most Outside-the-Box Choreo Goes to..."King Kong," currently running at the Broadway Theatre
The company of "King Kong" (Matthew Murphy, courtesy Boneau/Bryan-Brown)
The true star of King Kong is clearly the massive gorilla of the same name. In the production, Kong comes alive as a 2,000-pound, 20-foot-tall animatronic/puppet who leaves the audience completely awestruck as he runs down the streets of Manhattan, climbs the Empire State Building, and picks up leading lady Ann Darrow (Christiani Pitts). The visually stunning show, which feels as much like an amusement park attraction as a Broadway production, has also updated the original 1933 film story for modern audiences: Ann Darrow is no damsel in distress. Instead, she's an aspiring actress who saves herself.
The choreography also sets the show apart. Even though it's set in Depression-era NYC, there isn't one main dance style. Expect lots of explosive contemporary musical theater moves and stylized partnering that mimics the energy of busy NYC streets. "I wanted the choreography to reflect the fearless drive of NYC at the time," director/choreographer Drew McOnie says. "The city was being built from the ground up with the new construction of skyscrapers. Just like the buildings, the citizens were all reaching up, too, with aspiration and unbreakable spirit."
The Jazzie for the Highest-Energy School Dance Moves Goes to..."THE PROM," currently running at the Longacre Theatre
(From left) Angie Schworer as Angie and Caitlin Kinnunen as Emma (Deen van Meer, courtesy Polk & Co.)
The Prom takes this season's award for the show with the most heart, as well. It's an uplifting story about acceptance and equality, following a lesbian couple in Indiana who are banned from attending their high school's prom and the diva-like Broadway stars who step in to save the day—causing hilarious chaos in the process. Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, the dancing represents the diversity of the characters: There's super-hard-hitting hip-hop/jazz movement for the teens, and classic musical theater jazz for the Broadway stars. "The dancing in the show is the main attraction," dancer Mary Antonini says. "There are no crazy special effects or big LED screens—Casey really uses dance to tell this story."
You'll be especially impressed by Angie, a character who's a veteran Broadway chorus girl, played by real-life veteran Broadway chorus girl Angie Schworer. Schworer herself has been in 11 Broadway shows, including The Producers and Something Rotten, and her character in The Prom mirrors her real life ("Prom Angie is a little more narcissistic than real-life Angie, though," Schworer says). And she gets a fantastically fun, Fosse-inspired solo called "Zazz."
The show is also packed with huge, full-out production numbers and a finale dance that includes the entire cast. "The finale is my favorite because it's really unusual to have every single cast member dance," Antonini says. "It's amazing and incredibly unifying."
A version of this story appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "Presenting Dance Spirit's Annual Jazz Hand Awards."