On Friday, September 20th, the Peterborough Theatre Guild opens its 2019-2020 season with Richard Alfireri’s Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks.
Directed by Bea Quarrie and produced by Ina Stenner, with assistance by Sharon McLeod and Lyn Braun, the Guild’s production of the international hit play stars Jennifer Gruer as Lily Harrison and J.P. Baldwin as Michael Minetti in what has been described as a touching and warm comedy.
Originally staged in 2001 at Los Angeles’ Giffen Playhouse, starring Uta Hagen as Lily and David Hyde Pierce as Michael, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks made its Broadway debut in 2003 with Polly Bergen and Mark Hamill in the lead roles. Although the show had a relatively short run on Broadway (it closed prematurely due to Bergen’s health problems), the play has become a critical and audience favourite on stages throughout the world. It was also adapted into a 2014 film starring Gena Rowlands and Cheyenne Jackson.
“It’s really funny and at the same time touching,” director Bea Quarrie says of the play. “A lot of comedies that have boxed sets and multiple black outs really turn me off, so I choose to avoid them like the plague. But this one has something special about it — the writing is really strong, and it also has something to say. A lot of comedies are good for a good yuk, and you walk away without caring of what it’s about; I don’t enjoy them anymore. I wanted to do a comedy that says something.”
“It speaks politically as well as emotionally,” agrees J.P. Baldwin, who is also the show’s choreographer. “On the political stage, what it says still resonates — unfortunately.”
“Maybe more so now than when it was written, ” Bea adds. “Especially in the United States, but in Canada we’re not that far behind. It speaks on a human level about who we are, as human beings trying to reach out and be inclusive, while still being able to laugh. J.P. and Jennifer take my breath away because they are making those connections.”
Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks is about Lily, a widow who has relocated to Florida, who hires former Broadway dance instructor Michael for a series of dance lessons in her home — one lesson per week for six weeks. Michael, having been forced out of his life as a Broadway chorus boy, is bitter about his new career as a private dance instructor and the first lesson does not go well.
However, over the six weeks, Michael and Lily develop a powerful connection based around their strong personalities and by working through their own recent life changes and losses.
“Lily is a delightful character,” says Jennifer Gruer. “She’s complex in that she’s had a previous life that was conservative and stifled. Now she is on her own and has an opportunity to expand and explore who she is, and Michael gives her that opportunity. He challenges her in every way, but she’s open enough to be challenged.”
VIDEO: Jennifer Gruer and J.P. Baldwin rehearsing for “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks”
“She’s feisty and quick witted for an old gal,” Jennifer adds. “I think she loves life but is feeling more and more that her life is running out, so she has to make the most of it.”
The Guild production of Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks is the fourth time that J.P. Baldwin has played the role of Michael. He first performed the role in Bobcaygeon’s Globus Theatre production in 2010, and reprised the role at the Orillia Opera House in 2012, and later in Gravenhurst in 2014.
“For most shows, the day after it closes, I mostly can’t tell you what my lines are because I need to learn the next show,” J.P. says. “But for this show — I think because of its exceptional writing, its message, and the fact that out of all the roles I’ve played I really connect with Michael — it resonates very deeply with me. It stays with me.”
Having performed the role so many times, J.P. provides some insight into his character.
“Michael grew up in Florida but made his way to New York because he wanted to be somebody and wanted to perform,” J.P. explains. “He was a born performer, so he had a fairly long career on Broadway as a dancer. He probably was good, but he couldn’t sing or act very well so he got pigeon-holed as a dancer and became a staple in the chorus, which frustrates him.”
“He’s honest. He believes that manners are affectations left over from the aristocracy, and we are not the aristocracy, so he doesn’t understand why he shouldn’t be able to say or do the things he wants. The lines blur sometimes between him and me, so hopefully I bring some truth to this role.”
“That’s critical for both roles,” adds Bea. “I don’t think you have a play if the actors are not speaking their characters’ truth to each other — the sparks won’t fly. The truth won’t be there if we manufacture it, trying to manipulate the audience instead of giving them a slice of reality they can handle.”
Of course, with the play being about six dance lessons, it involves a fair amount of dancing including swing, the cha cha, the fox trot, and the tango. But, with life imitating art, J.P. — who has worked as a ballroom dance instructor — choreographed the show, which meant he was teaching Jennifer all of the dances.
“The dancing is delightful and fun,” says Jennifer. “I’m not a trained dancer, but I love to move and dance. J.P. is a great instructor, both in life and in character.”
“Jennifer picks up choreography very quickly,” J.P. adds. “As a dance instructor, it’s delightful to be able to work with that.”
A show about two unlikely people at turning points in their lives who find friendship, loyalty, and compassion via dance, Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks is the perfect beginning to Peterborough Theatre Guild’s new season.
Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks opens at 8 p.m. on Friday, September 20th and Saturday, September 21st, and runs Thursdays to Saturdays until October 5th, with 2 p.m. matinees on Sunday, September 22nd and Sunday, September 29th. Tickets are $25 ($22 for seniors, $15 for students) and are available by calling the box office at 705-745-4211 (if not open leave a message) or online at theatreguild.org.