For someone whose life after age 14 is a mystery to us, Marie Geneviève van Goethem has generated much interest and speculation.
The model for a famed 1881 statue by Edgar Degas titled “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen,” Marie was an impoverished adolescent in the midst of a brief career at the Paris Opera Ballet when she posed for Degas. After her departure from the ballet company (she was apparently fired for being absent too often), her trail goes cold.
Yet Marie has remained the subject of a fascinating book-length study by Camille Laurens and essays by art historians, and she’s at the center of a handsomely mounted, highly romanticized musical, “Marie, Dancing Still,” at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre.
The 5th Ave debut is a new version, with a revised book and added songs, of a musical seen in 2014 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., under the title “Little Dancer.” Its strong Broadway ambitions are fueled by a creative team and cast whose Tony Awards and other commendations could fill a spacious display case.
This unabashedly old-fashioned show is largely the brainchild of illustrious director-choreographer Susan Stroman (“The Producers”) and the respected team of writer Lynn Ahrens and composer Stephen Flaherty (“Ragtime”).
With A-list designers and a blue-ribbon cast, they have fashioned a sincere, attractive, overtly sentimental piece of speculative fiction that is admirably performed and satisfies in some ways. But it leans too heavily on telling rather than showing, and on simplistic, feel-good notions of art and artists.
A commanding Terrence Mann (the original Rum Tum Tugger in “Cats”) stars as a crotchety Degas, who is losing his sight and more or less forces young Marie to pose for him after she’s stolen his gold watch. Dee Hoty (“The Will Rogers Follies”) is Mary Cassatt, the accomplished painter and a friend of Degas. And Louise Pitre (“Mamma Mia!”) appears as the middle-aged Marie, who drops in and out to ruminate on her past — a device that needs sharpening.
Tiler Peck has her own distinctions. A principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, she brings, from her first series of flawless pirouettes, exquisite dance technique to the role of Marie, as well as a welcome, streetwise scrappiness.
Beowulf Boritt’s captivating scenic design projects onto an arrangement of tall panels rich saturations of color — magnified swatches from onstage and offstage Degas portraits of the Parisian ballerinas he spent four decades sketching, painting and sculpting.
The continually morphing backdrop is arresting, and the period and milieu are tantalizing. But the book by Ahrens is, in a way, at odds with itself. It suggests the poverty and squalor of Marie’s early life in the “godforsaken Paris slums,” with a single mother (played pungently by Karen Ziemba) who takes in laundry and drinks to excess. But “Marie, Dancing Still” also can go mawkish, valorizing its flawed characters into heroes and glossing the demimonde grit in an era when everything was not beautiful at the ballet.
The musical is more vital in its less solemn moments, including the opening invitation-to-the-dance number (“C’est le Ballet”), and a jaunty tune about the boho artists’ life (“Musicians and Dancers and Fools”) sung by Marie’s raffish (and fictional) violinist beau Christian (the ingratiating Kyle Harris).
And the extended dance number “The Choices” exhibits the vivid theatricality you’d expect from Stroman, given her choreographic ingenuity in “The Producers” and so many other shows. In this late Act 2 set piece, Marie has been kicked out of the ballet company and is plagued by surreal images of laundress drudges tugging on one end of her fears, and scandalous cancan dancers and lascivious swells tugging on the other. Akin to the groundbreaking “dream ballets” created by Agnes de Mille for “Carousel” and “Oklahoma!,” this nightmarish fantasia expresses in music and movement the dark choices faced by “les petits rats” (French slang for these ballerinas).
Otherwise in “Marie, Dancing Still,” apart from a vivacious cancan number, most other dances to Flaherty’s lushly sweeping orchestral score are prettily, formally balletic, and well-executed by dancers costumed in shimmery pastel tutus by William Ivey Long.
The story tends to falter when it strains for grand pronouncements and heart-tugging uplift. Ahrens is a deft lyricist but some song lines are cloyingly obvious.
And as the tale unfolds, the main characters and their relationships tend to sway toward cliché. The feisty, comically combative dynamic between an impatient Degas and his unreliable model melts into a surrogate father-daughter bond.
Marie has been elevated here from a lowly corps de ballet member to a brilliant dancer cruelly denied her chance at glory. And despite her petty larceny, she exhibits bourgeois disdain when rich dandies offer financial patronage in exchange for sex — a common exploitative arrangement in the ballet world at the time.
Hoty’s Cassatt (the rare female painter who achieved star status in the impressionist art movement) serves as a fount of epigrammatic wisdom about art and life. “Art is a difficult pursuit and it often ends in tears,” she says, stating the obvious. And while she praises the waxen “little dancer” statue as an innovative creation (which it was, due to its realism down to the actual ballet costume that adorned it), Cassatt also grandly claims this is Marie’s chance at inspirational immortality, and an “emotional breakthrough” for Degas (who in actuality was a reclusive guy with a reputation as a misanthrope, a misogynist and an anti-Semite).
Historically, Degas was scorned and lauded for his artistic focus on waifish dancers who appeared as glamorous nymphs in ballets, yet in society were often regarded as prostitutes. But little is said here about what made Degas great — his inventive genius for form, line and color, as well as subject matter. The process and rigorous discipline of art-making is portrayed more perceptively in Stephen Sondheim’s nuanced “Sunday in the Park with George,” a fictionalized musical about the painter Georges Seurat and his relationship with a model.
Making art about artists, especially renowned ones, is notoriously difficult. And some enthusiastic responses at a recent performance suggest that “Marie, Dancing Still” may find a very receptive audience — especially among ballet lovers. One just wishes, from a musical about the interplay of artistry and life, for less sentimentality — and more authenticity and insight.
“Marie, Dancing Still,” book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty, directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman. Through April 14; 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $29-$155 (prices subject to change); 206-625-1900, 5thavenue.org