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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

"Fandance": A Legend's Tale and Tribute to Mothers

“Fandance”: A Legend’s Tale and Tribute to Mothers
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Bridgeport, CT -- At its core, the exotic new musical “Fandance: The Legend of Sally Rand”, which enjoyed its official debut run last month at Bridgeport’s Downtown Cabaret Theatre, is a tribute to mothers and illustrates timely Mother’s Day themes.

Written and directed by star of stage and screen Misty Rowe, the performance relates the life story of famed burlesque queen Sally Rand whose unique and sometimes notorious fan-dances engaged audiences near and far. There’s also a story within a story here as the tale is presented through the perspective of Rowe’s late mother, Rosie, who saw Rand at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. The performance made a huge impression on Rosie and she talked about it throughout her life.

The tale came full circle when years later, Rosie stopped at a garage sale in Southern California and ran into the former fan-dance queen, then 74. Rand signed a playbill addressed to Misty who, at the time, was taking dance lessons and beginning her own career. Misty would go on to be a regular cast member (and is most often remembered for her role) on the long running televised variety show “Hee Haw”, among other industry credits. The production was written as not only a tribute to Rand but to Rowe’s Alzheimer’s-stricken mother.

“Fandance” very ably takes viewers back to the world of vaudeville, of which burlesque was a risqué cousin. Tongue-in-cheek and all done in the name of entertainment, the striptease was not sexual, but rather seductive, and more about illusion and making an audience think they saw more than they actually did.

Amber Carpenter plays Sally age 14 to 35. Rowe handles the balance from about age 42 to the dancer’s mid-70s. Notably, Rowe’s daughter Dreama is also featured in the production, effectively capitalizing on the intertwined mother-daughter-dancer theme. Comedian Steve Rossi, a friend of Rowe’s and one half of the once headlining comedy-music team Allen & Rossi, contributes a bit role doing vaudevillian-style stand-up.

“Fandance” producer and show biz veteran Barry Singer, 64, tags the show “a touching story about motherhood that hits you in the heart, is moving, full of razzle dazzle and a bevy of burlesque beauties.” This topline assessment aside, he adds, “It was a story that had to be told.”

Singer continues, “Motherhood is the art of being a mother and it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Sally Rand became successful against all odds and adopted a child. It really makes you think about your own mother as Mother’s Day nears.”

The production opens with the figure of a woman silhouetted behind a screen, turning slowly on her toes, then transitions to the garage sale scene at which Misty Rowe’s mother again encountered the fan-dance legend that she worshipped. Therein begins a flashback to Sally’s humble – and even conservative -- childhood growing up in the care of a grandfather. When a circus comes to town, she becomes fascinated by gypsies and excited by their colorful, jangling costumes.

Rand joins a carnival, taking the stage name Billie and performing in “The Gaiety Burlesque.” A producer that taps her for a silent film drama changes her name to Sally Rand after the book upon which she is made to stand (to give her more height). Her film career is brief, ending when “talkies” arrive and by a lisp that restricts her star potential.

It’s the Depression Era at this point and Rand is lucky to find work as a club dancer. There she performs her first fan dance and it’s an instant hit – something unique and “classy” compared with typical vaudevillian fare at that time, e.g. one-man bands, dancers with balloons strapped to themselves. The World’s Fair appearance and an arrest (and subsequent trial) for alleged indecent exposure follow, forever marking her for fame and notoriety.

One of the most personal (and tragic) segments in the story is the period during which Rand suffers a miscarriage while dancing, is unable to again conceive and divorces. She wants to adopt but her profession and status as a divorced woman are obstacles. She ends up illegally adopting a baby when the infant’s young mother (a fellow dancer) is unable to care for it.

Female cast members strongly relate to the show’s mother-daughter themes. “My mom’s [Misty Rowe] in the show, “ said Dreama Rowe DePaiva. “We have a strong bond and wonderful relationship. It’s a wonderful story.” Dancer Melissa Lopez, who plays a showgirl, has her own take: “I’m an only child and my parents are divorced. So, I can relate in the show to the mother character and her wanting a child so badly. [Sally] finally got what she wanted.”

The two also admire and are keenly aware from their own experience of how women have advanced in show business over the years. Said Lopez, a fledgling actress chasing her own dream, “Women in general have come so far and have risen above the challenges.” An appropriate sentiment for a day of tribute to moms and, in a grander way, to strong women everywhere for whom their mothers made sacrifices to ensure their success and well-being.