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STAGE REVIEW

Dancing together, they make connection

Adam Pelty and Stacey Harris play people from different backgrounds in Allan Knee's 'Syncopation.' Adam Pelty and Stacey Harris play people from different backgrounds in Allan Knee's "Syncopation."

LOWELL -- "Syncopation" plays like an exquisite piece of music. Even though we know exactly where the pattern of notes will take us, variations on the theme and the beauty of the performances offer unexpected thrills.

Playwright Allan Knee has already developed a reputation as a hopeless romantic and a history buff since writing the screenplay for "Finding Neverland" (based on his play), as well as the book for the musical version of "Little Women." With "Syncopation," now playing at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Knee blends a most unlikely moment in history with the most unlikely dance partners for an utterly enchanting romance.

"Syncopation" takes place in New York City in 1911, just before the Jazz Age turned the music world on its ear, when ragtime was becoming popular, at the end of the Victorian era and before the horrors of World War I. Within this setting, we meet Henry Ribolow (Adam Pelty ), a meatpacker who came to New York from Poland as a child and has a dream to become a famous ballroom dancer. He needs a dance partner , though, so he puts an ad in the paper requesting a partner who wants to "dance for royalty," and meets Anna Bianchi (Stacey Harris ), a second-generation Italian who works in a garment factory as a beader.

The two are worlds apart in their attitudes toward life and the way they express themselves, but when they dance together they create a new kind of connection. Pelty and Harris, who are reprising the roles they originated in an Albany, N.Y., production, are magnificent as the dance partners. Director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill does a great job encouraging their differences, with Pelty playing the eager and demonstrative Henry while Harris is the shy but restless Anna, who blossoms under his tutelage.

Pelty's choreography of ballroom dances -- everything from tangos and fox trots to waltzes and the Castle Walk -- adds enormously to the play. We watch as he bounds energetically around the stage as Henry makes up his own dances, demonstrates the way other partners move (his imitation of Irish step-dancing is priceless), and takes the audience into his confidence. Despite his reputation as a brooder who is incapable of smiling, his commitment to his dream of fame is irresistible.

Anna is delightfully tentative at first, a girl ready to follow the rules, who finds herself inexplicably keen to try something before settling down. During the course of the play, Henry charms and enthralls, but it is Anna who undergoes the most remarkable transformation. We watch as her confidence grows and she feels the pangs of disappointment, even as Henry encourages her passion and sense of adventure.

What makes "Syncopation" such a delight to watch, though, is Knee's ability to weave an astonishing amount of historical information, music, and dance into this simple boy-meets-girl story. Knee never allows us to get bogged down in history. Events are mentioned, but as touchstones to inform and illuminate the actions of his characters.

He is also effective at building the audience's investment in this couple through their dancing. We watch Henry and Anna struggle through steps, listen to them talk as they move through the music, and without even realizing it, we begin to feel their dream to dance in ballrooms with crystal chandeliers is our dream, too.

The graceful rhythms of "Syncopation" will stay with you long after the dance has ended.

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