Artists’ passion permeates GBSC’s ‘Swan Lake in Blue’

H.C. Lee, Jackson Jirard, Mike Herring and the ensemble in Swan Lake in Blue at Greater Boston Stage Company. Directed and choreographed by Ilyse Robbins, set by Tori Oakes, lights by Chris Fournier and costumes by Kevin Hutchins. Photo Maggie Hall Photography.

STONEHAM – Paying tribute to a much-loved, iconic piece of art while also transforming it dramatically for a new audience is a delicate balance.

That’s why the Greater Boston Stage Company’s world premiere dance event “Swan Lake in Blue: A Jazz Ballet” is such a daring gamble. It pays off, offering a brilliantly entertaining, often thrilling modern take on Tchaikovsky’s first classical ballet, written in 1875 and widely regarded as the most loved and mesmerizing of classical ballets.

Two sublime local talents – composer/musician Steve Bass and award-winning director/choreographer Ilyse Robbins – have combined forces to put their stamp on the work, performing it in the style of a ballet, with no dialogue or singing. The dancing and the music tell the story in 22 separate music/dance numbers spread over four acts.

Sure, stage musicals based on dance that tell stories have been done before, most notably the Tony Award-winning “Contact.” And dance has always told a story as part of a musical, with perhaps the best example Agnes DeMille’s iconic balletic sequences in “Oklahoma!”

Bass and Robbins, in updating and adapting the classic ballet, have moved it to 1940s New York City and crafted  a tragic love story that closely resembles the storyline of “Swan Lake.”

Their vision is a work  that is a ballet at its core, but also has the look and feel of a Broadway musical, which was their intent.

Robbins has employed the superb dancer Sara Coombs to great effect in GBSC musicals such as “42nd Street” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie”   and here she plays the key part of  Odette, the innocent young girl who rejects the advances of ruthless mob boss Jimmy Von Rothbart ( David Visini)  and falls in love with the Broadway producer  Florenz Siegfried   (Andy McLeavey).

Siegfried, of course, is a stand-in for the legendary Flo Ziegfeld, who produced dance-happy theatrical revues.

In the new story, Odette enters late to an audition Siegfried is holding for his new show, but she stuns him by learning a difficult combination quickly and appears to be his perfect dance partner. But she suddenly decides to leave, and brushes off Siegfried, leaving a matchbook behind from the Swan Club.

Von Rothbart, it turns out, forces Odette to perform as a burlesque dancer nightly at the Swan Club, along with the Little Swans (Briana Fallon and Gillian Mariner Gordon).

Siegfried and assistant Ben Kelly (the uber-athletic Jackson Girard) go to the club to see Odette perform and Siegfried attempts to court her after the show, only to lose a duel with Van Rothbart, who spirits her away.

Passion, betrayal and mistaken identities ensue— will Odette fly away from her past or stay caged forever?

In Acts 1 and 2, the story is told in a series of tap numbers, several of which bring down the house.  In their style and complexity, we can see echoes of the famed tap numbers in “42nd Street.”

In Acts 3 and 4 after intermission, tap gives way jazz-infused dance numbers, at times veering off to incorporate genres such as the cha-cha; at one point even a conga line breaks out.  Jazz is Bass’s first love and his jazz riffs will have you recalling the great big bands of the ‘40s under bandleaders such as Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, and the swing era itself.

The work of the dance ensemble – many of them new to GBSC — is a tribute to their skills as well as the work of Robbins, who said the dance numbers evolved over many months. Besides the aforementioned dancers, the ensemble includes Mike Herring, Claire Lawrence, Lily Lawrence, HC Lee, Erica Lundin, Maya McClain, and Michael Skrzek.

In program notes, Bass says that in creating “Swan Lake in Blue” with Robbins, he was inspired by a 1960 Duke Ellington album in which Ellington and Billy Strayhorn arranged and recomposed selections from Tchaikovsky’s  “Nutcracker Suite” for a jazz big band.

Meanwhile, you’ll also recognize the echoes of  the classic score from the ballet itself. That’s because Bass took and recomposed three key pieces of the Tchaikovsky work and aligned them with three of the main characters: the overture with Odette, Siegfried the waltz, and Von Rothbart the swan scene.  

Robbins’ direction obviously is complicated because the performers only have their facial expressions, body language and dancing prowess to express their emotions, but the cast is up to the task.

GBSC has invested heavily in the production, with a 16-piece orchestra performing onstage under the direction of Bass, as well as a cast of 13.

The musicians – many of whom had spotlighted solos – look as if they’re having a ball performing Bass’s score, especially in his loving re-creation of the Big Band Era which was still in full sway in the 1940s, when the piece is set.

On the opening night of the production, Robbins – a noted tap dancer herself, who once worked with the legendary Gregory Hines — even joined the cast onstage for an encore number.

I have always thought that when an artist is passionate about a project, that passion is easy to see in the finished product. The passion Bass and Robbins brought to this “dance event” shines through in every minute of “Swan Lake in Blue.”

The Greater Boston Stage Company world premiere production of “Swan Lake in Blue: A Jazz Ballet.” Music direction and original compositions by Steve Bass. Directed and choreographed by Ilyse Robbins. Lighting design by Chris Fournier. Scenic and prop design by Tori Oakes. Costume design by Kevin Hutchins. Production stage manager: Deidre Benson. At the Greater Boston Stage Company, Stoneham, through March 1.

Sara Coombs and Andy McLeavey in Swan Lake in Blue at Greater Boston Stage Company. Directed and choreographed by Ilyse Robbins, set by Tori Oakes, lights by Chris Fournier and costumes by Kevin Hutchins. Photo Maggie Hall Photography.