Syncopation – Funny, light-hearted and sweet

Justin Stewart Cotta and Emma Palmer in Syncopation. Image supplied

Old New York. 1912. What a rich world.

Syncopation feels like an old movie you’d watch to brighten up dreary weather. Funny, light-hearted, and sweet without being cloying, it’s a story about two people of incredible differences who learn how to dance together – to partner each other. It’s also quite unexpectedly moving.

A fusion of theatre and dance by playwright Allan Knee, this is the story of Henry, a Jewish meatpacker who dreams of becoming a ballroom dancer (think Toby Ziegler if he traveled back in time, West Wing fans) and Anna, an Italian-American factory worker who is set to be married. She seeks out Henry after he places an ad in the paper looking for a dance partner, and their journey begins.

It’s very New York, very nostalgic, and surprisingly, really genuinely funny just as much as it is a lovely story about human beings learning to love people so different from themselves — and possibly even learning to love their own selves. Henry’s journey there is more interior as he lets someone else into his private world of dance, relies on someone else to achieve his lifelong dreams of dancing for royalty. Anna, however, less worldly and more conservative, gets to take on the world, and her discovery of feminism, literature and the “Odd Women” of the time is absolutely fascinating, even though it’s the internal journey of the heart that ultimately drives much of her decisions.

This is a two-hander only and Justin Stewart Cotta (Henry) and Emma Palmer (Anna) are perfectly in control of the stage and perfectly enjoyable to watch. Their dance grows stronger as the characters bond, but we are always entertained by it. It’s just as delightful to watch them dance (thanks to choreographer Mark Hodge) as it is to watch these characters engage and argue and connect, and they are both so impossibly likable that I’m not sure how you couldn’t wholeheartedly want the best for them.

This production manages to feel lush on a small scale and with a fairly minimal set, with kudos to designer Adrienne Chisholm. A clever curtained backdrop gave night sky lit-up silhouettes and the suggestion of about a hundred other things, including fire and fireworks, which captured the dynamic nature of New York City without breaking the budget. A lot about the production showed similar innovation; the costumes were cleverly altered and adapted from one scene to next, including one particularly delightful satorial reveal that’s too fun to spoil.

Syncopation is a refreshing night at the theatre because it’s not afraid to be sincere, and that sincerity creates an absolutely unshakable charm. It’s worth noting that on opening night, while the two people behind me talked all the way through the first act, they were some of the biggest cheerers (and otherwise blessedly quiet) throughout the entirety of Act 2. That’s what Syncopation does, folks. It wins you over.

This is a touring production and will be seen next in Sydney at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres from Tuesday 24 July. Catch it – you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and is the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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