By Jim Walsh
The tone was set straightaway Thursday night when the entire cast of “Anytown: Stories of America,” which continues tonight through Sunday at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio, ambled on stage to the strains of Bruce Springsteen’s “Human Touch.” Dressed in flannel shirts, jeans, and vintage skirts, the boys and girls squared off, bumped into each other, avoided each other, and eventually erupted en masse into an exuberant array of jumps, fits, starts, slips, and slides: life itself.
In the end, Springsteen’s beg for flesh-and-blood connection in a cold world was answered – sated, actually – by a magnificent and moving two-hour performance that shouldn’t be missed by anyone with even a passing interest in dance, Springsteen’s music, passion, family, love, sex, life, and transformation via art. Over the course of 19 songs/pieces, the young dancers concisely articulate the human condition circa 2012 – a complicated condition, to be sure, and one that too many other modes of communication fall short at getting at.
“Anytown” gets it. Originally staged in 2005 but utterly timeless, “Stories of America” is the work of Shapiro and Smith Dance, the acclaimed Minneapolis-based company formed by choreographers Joanie Smith and the late Daniel Shapiro (whose battle with cancer inspired the first incarnation of “Anytown”), and is buoyed by the music of Springsteen, his wife and bandmate Patti Scialfa, and violinist/songwriter Soozie Tyrell (Smith’s sister).
If that sounds clumsy, it’s not. More like, epic. Most of the tunes (“Countin’ On A Miracle,” “Youngstown,” “Empty Sky,” “When You’re Young In The City,” “Ain’t Got You”) are story-songs, and it’s obvious the dancers have a blast pouring their athletic guts out and moving, with great physicality, nuance, control, and precision, to these tales of mothers, fathers, dandies, floozies, lost souls, gone-but-unforgotten soul mates, controlling women, out-of-control men, illicit lovers, desperate characters, sinners, strugglers, and others.
In many ways, “Anytown” is like diving into a great mix tape from a friend, albeit with the extraordinary added value of each tune being interpreted and augmented by gorgeous gifted bodies. Highlights include Megan McClellan and her boy toys Scott Mettille and Justin Reiter’s sassy, sexy swing around Scialfa’s woefully under-recognized “City Boys”; the Irish-American family experience (banging, birthing, drinking, fighting) staged around an ironing board and transistor radio and set to Tyrell’s “Square Dance”; the company’s weary take on the blues version of “Born In The USA”; Maggie Bergeron and Jose Bueno generating real and really playful heat while navigating a bed on wheels through church services to “Maria’s Bed”; Laura Selle Virtucio’s elegantly powerful solo turn on “ferdouganal,” and the entire company’s fast-budding chemistry that blooms, and breathtakingly so, on “St. Genevieve.”
Throughout the performance, songs are introduced by words projected on the back of the black box, to cryptic effect. “If you’re lucky when you get it right, you lose your voice and the voices you choose to write about become your own.” “Most of these songs take place on the bank of a river.” “In the end what you don’t surrender. Well the world just strips away.”
To that end, “Anytown” is about what Springsteen has always been about – daily (hourly?) rebirth and renewal – and while its roots are steeped in the reality of the workaday world, the hardscrabble immigrant experience, and a death that inspired the work itself, rare is the performance that leaves a body walking out of the theater filled with such true glee.
“Is there anybody aliiiiiiive out there?,” Springsteen has been fond of asking his audiences in concert. “Anytown” is a resounding answer in the positive.