Since Stroman's ballet, "Double Bill," is the first original full-length ballet performed by the company since Balanchine's own plotless "Jewels" in 1967, its premiere was a much-anticipated event in the ballet world and turned out to be a spectacular success, well worth the more than $750,000 it cost to stage.
For one thing, the ballet offers the company's redoubtable Damian Woetzel in a solo that allows him a pyrotechnical display of the kind of virtuoso dancing that has put him in the forefront of today's ballet stars. For another, it establishes bantam-size Tom Gold, cast as a Buster Keaton-type character, as one of ballet's most appealing comedians with formidable dance talent to match.
"Double Bill," has nothing to do with Balanchine except that it was commissioned by the City Ballet as a tribute to the late choreographer's contribution to 15 Broadway musical comedies between 1936 to 1951. It is the only premiere of the company's winter season at Lincoln Center ending Feb. 29.
Unlike Stroman's work for Broadway, a mixture of ballet and modern dance that has won her a record five Tony Awards, "Double Bill" uses ballet grammar exclusively, as did all of the many works choreographed by Balanchine during a 53-year career that ended with his death in 1983.
Stroman's genius for creating exciting dance imagery shines through the classic conventions of ballet movement, bringing audiences to their feet for salvos of applause and shouted ovations at the end of the two-and-a-half-hour performance. There is no doubt that the new two-part work will enter the company's repertory, to be danced in the future as a single number or possibly as separate works.
"Double Bill" is fashioned in the form of a pair of 1920s films with archly-worded narrations projected on a screen at the rear of the stage just as they were inserted between scenes in silent films. The music for the first "film" titled "The Blue Necklace" is a potpourri of Irving Berlin songs, and music for the second titled "Makin' Whoopee" is mélange of songs by Walter Donaldson.
Storytelling is Stroman's strength as a choreographer, whereas Balanchine practically invented the pure dance ballet without a shred of story line. In writing the two librettos that make up "Double Bill" the choreographer teamed up with Glen Kelly. "The Blue Necklace" is an original idea inspired by old-fashioned melodramas, but "Makin' Whoopee" is based on a 1925 Buster Keaton film, "Seven Chances."
In "The Blue Necklace," an adopted foundling (Ashley Bouder) gets the best of her evil foster mother (Kyra Nichols) and is reunited with her real mother (Maria Korowsky), a glamorous dancing star, after proving her own dancing ability by partnering with a handsome movie star (Damian Woetzel).
In "Makin' Whoopee," a romantically shy young man (Tom Gold), has the chance to inherit $7 million if he meets an almost immediate deadline, his birthday, to get married.
The first story is predictable, since it follows the Cinderella format, but "Makin' Whoopee" offers the chance of some real fun, especially after Jimmy Shannon, the young man desperate to be a bridegroom, advertises for a wife. A church full of avaricious brides, some of them in drag, turn up and give hilarious chase to Shannon, who winds up in the arms of his true love (Alexandra Ansanelli) to whom he has never had the nerve to propose.
"The Blue Necklace," however, offers a sure-fire audience pleaser in the form of two little ballerinas from the company's School of American Ballet who play the Cinderella role and that of her step-sister as 10-year-olds. Tara Sorine and Isabella Tobias are delightful as the girls, all too soon transformed into 17-year-olds by Ashley Bouder and Megan Fairchild.
Doug Westerman has woven the Irving and Donaldson songs into a seamless orchestration, Robin Wagner has contributed simple but attractive sets sensitively lighted by Mark Stanley, and Broadway costume designer William Ivey Long has created some stunning costumes including more than a score of individually styled wedding dresses.
A review would not be complete without mentioning that a Boston terrier, unlisted in the program, almost stops the show with well rehearsed antics in "Makin' Whoopee."