M33 | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


A new musical version of a famed play about dance marathons is messy, but has its rewards.

Brandon Taylor and Heidi Friese in Point Park Conservatory's M33.
Brandon Taylor and Heidi Friese in Point Park Conservatory's M33.

It sounds like such a cute idea: Get a bunch of people together, and make them dance until they can't dance anymore. What could be more fun than music, two-steps and a little healthy competition? 

But the dance marathons of the 1930s were not fun. They were nasty, bitter, sleazy events, and the despair of the Great Depression made people do anything to win prize money. They hallucinated. They collapsed. They danced in bloody shoes. And gawkers tossed coins at them and hollered in amusement. 

When June Havoc wrote M33 (as 1963's Marathon '33), the bleak drama drew from personal experience. Havoc was a beloved child entertainer, but when her popularity plummeted, she was forced to dance in these cutthroat marathons. The teen-age Havoc survived and became a Broadway star, but she suffered for years among vagrants and vagabonds. As long as they danced, they earned 12 meals a day and spurts of rest. 

The Point Park Conservatory presents a new version of M33, adapted by Tomé Cousin and Peter Gregus, with music arrangements by Douglas Levine. As a play, M33 is a weird patchwork of dance, vaudeville and dramatic scenes. There are a dozen principal characters, and their world is a fever-dream of movement and words. Michael Essad's set is an industrial colossus, where up to four subplots unfold at any given moment. In this world premiere, the directing is messy, the acting is weak, and the script is bric-a-brac, but there is method to its madness. If you are very patient, M33 has its rewards. 

But it is best not to think of M33 as a play at all, much less a musical. (For Broadway's idea of dance marathons, see 1997's Steel Pier, which approximates the plot of M33 and exceeds it on every level.) Instead, think of M33 as an historical document, drafted by a genuine survivor. This staged memoir is dirty and provocative; the all-student cast makes the sweat and exhaustion palpable. As June, the play's author-protagonist, Heidi Friese plays on several levels — cute, spoiled, frantic — as she spirals toward a nervous breakdown. 

The play is long, but the subject deserves length: Real marathoners danced for at least 1,000 hours, with only 15-minute breaks. Is that show business?

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