WASHINGTON - Many decades have passed since ballet played a significant role in musical theater, which may be one reason 'Little Dancer,' a new musical directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, about the girl immortalized in the Edgar Degas statue of the title, has a whiff of the antique about it. This polished and pretty if less than transporting show, with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, features a dramatic ballet in which the young heroine relives the rapturous highs and demoralizing lows of her life.
As danced by Tiler Peck, the brilliant New York City Ballet principal who plays the central role, this wordless passage brings the musical to a stirring climax. Although Ms. Stroman's classical choreography is often more correct than inventive, here she finds a way to turn classroom steps expressive, as Marie (Ms. Peck) moves from shining pride in her immaculate technique to confusion and terror as visions of her past life buffet her around the stage.
The musical, making its premiere at the Kennedy Center here, was inspired by the real-life Marie van Goethem, the teenage model for Degas 's famous sculpture, originally sculpted in wax and later cast in bronze. (The National Gallery of Art here has more than one version.) Not a lot is known about van Goethem's life, so the show's authors have imagined her trajectory through the rougher streets of Paris and the cutthroat world of the Paris Opera Ballet.
Ms. Peck plays the young Marie, Rebecca Luker the girl all grown up. In a framing device set in Degas's studio shortly after his death, the older Marie returns to finally see the sculpture she posed for - with, as we shall learn, life-changing consequences. Ms. Luker, in radiant voice, begins to reminisce in song about her first meeting with Degas ( Boyd Gaines), celebrated for his paintings of dancers onstage and mostly off, in moments of quiet concentration or idle boredom as they prepare to perform. (The handsome set design, by Beowulf Boritt, employs projections, by Benjamin Pearcy, of some of the artist's signature works.)
'C'est le Ballet,' the sweeping opening number, brings us backstage at the Paris Opera Ballet, where the dancers assemble to rehearse, and the hangers-on and admirers, among them Degas, freely mingle with the company. Mischievous Marie, in between pirouettes and fouettés, dances her way into the pockets of Degas, nimbly lifting his watch and his wallet before flitting offstage.
At home, she stores her booty in a secret compartment, hoping to keep the money for herself and her younger sister, Charlotte (Sophia Anne Caruso), who wants to join her sister as a 'rat,' as the young members of the corps de ballet were dismissively called. (In a wryly funny 'Hard Knock Life'-type lament, they sing: 'Who's always flitting like a gnat, never getting fat? A rat!')
The girls' mother, the laundress Martine (Karen Ziemba, a Tony winner for Ms. Stroman's 'Contact'), loves her daughters - the oldest, Antoinette (Jenny Powers), has left the ballet to become, essentially, a courtesan - but she has trouble with money, trouble with men and trouble with drink. (In one scene, she and her male companion are costumed, by William Ivey Long, and posed to suggest Degas's famous painting 'L'Absinthe.')
When Marie delivers a basket of laundry to Degas in his studio, he recognizes her as the scamp who spirited away his wallet, but takes a shine to her anyway, and demands that she begin posing by way of recompense. She complies, and gradually begins to take a furtive pride in this odd pastime, although it jeopardizes her status at the ballet when she arrives late for class.
Gradually losing his eyesight, Degas is capably if a little stiffly portrayed by Mr. Gaines as a curmudgeon on bad terms with most of his fellow painters, save his friend Mary Cassatt (Janet Dickinson). With Marie as muse the only link between the worlds of the ballet and the studio, his story line becomes secondary, with the painter disappearing for significant portions of the show.
Marie's trajectory, unfortunately, tends to unfold along familiar lines: the poor girl struggling to make her way against tough odds, in the corrupt and corrupting world of the ballet, where the dancers are expected to flirt with (meaning sleep with) the patrons. To sweeten things, she has predictably been given a wholesome young admirer, the violinist Christian (Kyle Harris), but this pro forma subplot is never fully developed.
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Still, the material is far more congenial to Ms. Ahrens and Mr. Flaherty than the boxing-theme 'Rocky,' which flopped on Broadway last season. The score, deep-dyed in romance, falls lightly and pleasantly on the ear. Mr. Flaherty nods toward the period with a couple of sweeping waltzes and a cancan number, and occasionally employs the accordion in a Piaf-flavored tune or two. Two solos for Christian - his confession of love, 'Musicians and Dancers and Fools' and a bittersweet song of farewell, 'Dancing Still' - are among the standouts, ardently delivered by Mr. Harris.
Ms. Ahrens, a precise and skilled lyricist, also evokes the milieu effectively and provides welcome moments of felicitous humor. The book gestures toward themes explored with greater complexity in that other musical about a famous 19th-century painter, 'Sunday in the Park With George': the ruthlessness of the artist, who lives more in his work than in the world, while those around him make sacrifices he cannot or will not see. But the story of Marie tugs the show in more obvious and sentimental directions.
At 11, Ms. Peck appeared in Ms. Stroman's 2000 revival of 'The Music Man' on Broadway; the director encouraged her to join the School of American Ballet, where she quickly excelled. She has since become among New York City Ballet's most acclaimed and versatile dancers. In the big ballet numbers, Ms. Stroman's choreography reveals Ms. Peck's crystalline technique and the effervescence she brings to even the simplest of steps.
Naturally, Ms. Peck is less assured as an actor and singer. She brings a bright, feisty energy to the role; the teasing, taunting rapport between young Marie and Degas has something of the loving exasperation that marks the relationship between Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in 'My Fair Lady.'
She's never less than a lovely and inviting presence onstage. But she must carry the weight of the drama on her slender shoulders, a challenge that she cannot comfortably meet, particularly when Marie's life begins to unravel, as her ballet career is cut brutally short.
'Little Dancer' unquestionably marks a return to confident form for all three of its principal creators. Ms. Stroman, you'll recall, also had a belly-flop on Broadway last season, with the fizz-free Woody Allen musical 'Bullets Over Broadway.' And yet I couldn't shake the feeling that, with its soft edges and its slight air of the formulaic, this musical set in the later years of the 19th century might almost have been written sometime in the middle of the 20th.