Hopeless Springs

When an adaptation slips from honest homage into unintentional parody

In the most memorable moment of Tim Burton's 1990 movie Edward Scissorhands, the protagonist, an artificial human being with scissors where his fingers should be, puts the finishing touches on a massive ice statue of his heart's desire, the angelic, unattainable Kim. As the sculptor's frenzied movements send ice flakes flurrying into the air, an ecstatic Kim dances around the statue to the sumptuous swells of composer Danny Elfman's musical score. The scene might be as tacky as a drugstore snow globe, but it's utterly enchanting.

Something unfortunate happens in the transition between Burton's conception of this scene and British choreographer Matthew Bourne's take on it. At the moment when we should be reveling in the magic of the snow-kissed Kim twirling in the moonlight as Edward completes his masterwork above her head, Bourne's stage adaptation presents us with a sight that's definitely tacky but not in the least bit enchanting: As the scissor-fingered man hacks away at the effigy, sending a single spray of snow shooting outward as if from a leaky dam, Kim's likeness in ice appears to be hemorrhaging from the neck.

Bourne has earned himself an international reputation over the past decade as a master of pastiche (a composition that imitates the style of previous works). From his controversial Swan Lake (featuring male dancers as swans) to his adaptation of Bizet's Carmen (entitled Car Man), the choreographer has approached his source material with a wacky comedic eye. Granted, the sexual politics of Swan Lake generated serious discussion when the work first appeared in 1995. Nevertheless, Bourne is, first and foremost, an entertainer — a creator of loving lampoons, in movement and music, of other artists' work.

You've Got to Hand It to Him: Sam Archer as Edward in pajamas.
Bill Cooper
You've Got to Hand It to Him: Sam Archer as Edward in pajamas.

Details

Through Dec. 10
Tickets are $35-90; call 512-7770 or visit www.shnsf.com.
Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market (at Eighth St.), S.F.

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Somehow, though, Bourne's goofy, imitative style chafes against Burton's sinister fairy tale about an insular, middle-American community's complex relationship with the "physically handicapped" outsider, Edward. The Broadway-bound production is visually playful, musically evocative, and expressively performed by the members of the original London cast. But in recounting the story of Edward's adoption by the kindly Boggs family and his subsequent fortunes in the town of Hope Springs, the comedy mostly lurches between inane pastiche and — as in the ice-sculpture scene — unintentional parody.

Perhaps because Burton's film is already a prickly satire on the small-mindedness of American culture encased in a sparkly, storybook frame, Bourne's version doesn't quite know where to sink its comedic teeth. Though the movie is set in the 1980s, Hope Springs is a throwback to the squeaky-cleanness of the post-war boom years, with its cookie-cutter suburbs and apron-wearing housewives. In the stage adaptation, scenery and costume designer Lez Brotherston gives us an eyeful of neat little candy-colored homes and plenty of pigtails and pompadours. But any irony is undercut by the lack of darkness — save the occasional sinister snicker-snack of a pair of scissors in Terry Davies' reworking of Elfman's score.

With much of the original's shear-edged satire removed, Bourne derives most of his comic energy through hackneyed pastiche of other well-known dance and music styles. For example, in the busy street and party scenes, the choreographer draws on the language of rock 'n' roll, creating the sensation of happy activity via couples throwing each other around and performing quasi-swing and -lindy hop steps. The staging looks like many other attempts to evoke the spirit of a high school dance circa 1950. Elsewhere, with the help of Davies' intricate use of bells, flute, celesta (like a keyboard with hammers), and pizzicato strings (a mixture of synthesizers and real instruments), Bourne constructs a pas de deux for Edward and Kim that acts as a vague homage to Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite. And in the scene where Edward (played on alternate nights by Sam Archer and Richard Winsor) lends his quick fingers to the cutting of women's hair, a bristling Flight of the Bumblebee-esque violin solo predictably accompanies the character's frenetic snipping.

The pastiche doesn't always disappoint. In one memorable scene, for instance, local siren Joyce (played alternately by Michela Meazza and Mikah Smillie) attempts to seduce a befuddled Edward through a hilarious erotic duet based on the tango. As Joyce slinks over the tables and Edward slides under the chairs, every piece of furniture in Joyce's house becomes part of the game of cat and mouse. The comedy is further heightened by the sudden freefall, from high above the stage, of a giant, saggy pouf — the Hope Springs equivalent of the Murphy bed. Meanwhile, the fanatical devotion of the town's resident religious nuts is wittily conveyed through a spoofy reenactment of Jesus' march to Calvary, featuring one dancer trudging across the stage with a fellow performer, arms akimbo and legs together, slung across his back like a cross. Ponderous church organ music emphasizes the joke.

On occasion, Bourne's comedic scissors slip. At one moment, for example, some local teens enter the dilapidated gothic mansion that serves as Edward's home at the start of the story, in search of some Halloween fun. Donning fright masks, they pop out from the shadows one by one and perform a zombielike dance. The scene, if viewed out of context, would be a lively send-up of Michael Jackson's Thriller video. In context, it's more misguided than thrilling. The same could also be said of Bourne's guess at Edward's origins. If this "dance-ical" were a "musical" and Bourne had access to the performers' voices, then we might buy the Frankenstein-derived back story involving the robbing of a dead boy's grave. But conveyed, as it is, through heavy-handed mime and words printed on a scrim at the front of the stage, the opening narrative resembles a third-rate Nosferatu.

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