PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Heat Wave Gives Choreographer Jack Cole a 21st-Century Spotlight

By Harry Haun
11 May 2012

Chet Walker
Cole entered his consciousness via film and television. Walker said, "I've done no shows with Jack. I'm an outsider. I'm an admirer of his because what he represents is jazz. I took a class with him 150 years ago. Didn't meet him. It was at a convention, and he taught, and there seemed to be hundreds of people. All I knew about him was that he was different. As a young man, literally a child, I remember looking at him and going, 'That's something very special. ' People have called him 'the father of jazz dance.' I don't think he'd have said that. He'd say 'street dancing.' He had a technique, and it's kinda, like, lost. This whole show is about bringing people's attention to the possibilities of what was and could be. The numbers that he created — just the formations, the intricacy of it, people doing things on different counts, half-counts — when you look at it and you recreate it, we just don't see that anymore, and it's something to re-look at. I don't have a favorite. We only do about 30 numbers of his, and there are so many more.

"The next thing I want to do is to do another version of what I'm doing now. Jack Cole was at Columbia Pictures for four years, had 12 dancers on a sound stage working every day from nine to five to create. You've got to do that. You have to spend the time to train dancers in the technique of this man. This is a small beginning of what I see as a larger thing, but I also see everything that we do is an education."

David Elder from 42nd Street and Rachelle Rak from Catch Me If You Can head a young, breathlessly energetic cast of 15.

"I love this experience," Elder confessed. "For me, certainly, it feels like a good fit. I get to do various things that utilize my different talents — Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye, opera, ballet, the funny stuff. It's like a nice arc of a bunch of different styles for me."

Jena VanElslander, David Elder and Lindsay Roginski in Heat Wave.
photo by Carol Rosegg

The new producing artistic director of Queens Theatre, Ray Cullom, has high hopes for Heat Wave: "I think this show very definitely has a future. The feedback we've gotten from industry people and from our audiences, has just been overwhelming." Being the launching pad for new shows would fit right in with his game plan for the theatre. "That's kinda what we're trying to create — a place where you can, in town, do an 'out of town' tryout." Presumably, there is more where this came from: "A whole new season we will announce in three weeks," he promised.

This particular opening pulled some name players and industry folk, among them screen hoofer Eugene Louis Faccuito (a.k.a. "Luigi"), Malcolm Gets, Post scooper Michael Riedel and assorted hot-and-Cole-running dancers.

A Chorus Line Tony winner Donna McKechnie, who is touring her one-woman show, My Musical Comedy Life (Pittsfield's Colonial is the next pit-stop July 27), reached Broadway after Cole's heyday. "I always wanted to work with him," she lamented, "but I know so many people who worked with him. Gwen Verdon told me many stories about Jack when he was her guardian and she was just 18 years old and they were doing their nightclub act, and how hard he worked everybody, but he worked just as hard when he was dancing in his own shows.

"When I do my own show, wherever I am, I always mention Jack Cole's name. At a lot of universities where I play, the students haven't heard of him. He's not written up enough in our history, so I think it's my job. I love to say names of people I admire, and he's an important name because he is the father of Broadway dance. There are a lot of people who are our forebears, but Jack Cole is the one who really brought all the elements of different cultures to create contemporary modern dance."

Wicked/Godspell's Stephen Schwartz was another who was left out in the Cole and could only imagine what the choreographer could have done with his "Defying Gravity" Act One finale. "I don't have enough background information on him to appreciate some of it," he admitted, "but I found it very interesting, anyway."

Dancer-choreographer-teacher Jacques d'Amboise — or "Charlotte's dad," as he likes to identify himself — is of Cole vintage and called the performance "a tremendous evening, full of memories. A lot of those dances I saw. Jack, I knew and admired, but we never worked together. I just hung out with all the dancers that had bad knees, and they all said it was his fault."