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STAGE REVIEW

Music, movement save a meandering 'Vagabond Tales'

Had it with holiday-specific shows, all those ''Nutcrackers" and ''Messiahs"? Try ''Vagabond Tales," the latest production by the Canadian troupe Barrage. Despite the ponderous title, this show of musicians who have been taught to move attractively while playing various string and percussion instruments is refreshingly lightweight fare in a season when most people are in need of just such relief.

Meaningful it's not. (Do you need more meaning at the moment?) There's a shred of a plot, enunciated once in a while by an officious unseen narrator. It has to do with warring tribes, the sun people and the moon people, and also has little to do with the actual show. So why bother?

Nonetheless, the 11 performers are engaging and energetic, even if the material they've been given by music director Dean Marshall and director/choreographer Brian Hansen is pablum. We're told that ''The Vagabond's story is one of enlightened freedom, self-discovery, and fun." Meanwhile, it's hard to tell which, if any, of the performers is the Vagabond.

The two-hour show starts with a blast -- an assault of over-amplified instruments in a setting suggesting an urban, contemporary gypsy camp. The sheer volume is a barrier to our empathizing with the characters: There's a wall of noise between them and us.

Expert fiddling mixes with basic movement performed by lean, taut, attractive bodies. Props including big bouncing balls that can be sat on or tossed around help to expand the choreography beyond the limitations of the performers. Occasionally, a musical instrument is a vital prop. And when the music mixes with the plot rather than just accompanying it, as when two women tease a man through their insistent playing, the show works. In a comical case, an itchy ear translates into a scratchy fiddle.

''Vagabond Tales" is proudly billed as ''Stomp" crossed with ''Riverdance," both of which are hokier fare. ''Stomp" looked shopworn after a few years, and ''Riverdance" was always a smarmy version of the Disney ''It's a Small World" theme. ''Vagabond Tales" is also a mix, borrowing tunes including ''Bridge Over Troubled Water" and ''Eleanor Rigby." It's not a plus that the score is such a pastiche.

Nor is it a plus that the story surfaces just when you'd like it to stay submerged. When destiny brings together a Romeo and Juliet couple, we've not had a chance to build sympathy for them. They have no history as potential lovers.

Contemporary though the production is meant to be, it does have an interesting historical link with dance of previous centuries. As anyone familiar with the ballet paintings of Degas knows, while teaching the daily class, the ballet masters of the past provided their own accompaniment -- playing on the violin.

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