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Ain't Done Bad

Theatre Review by James Wilson - July 15, 2024

Jakob Karr
Photo by Matthew Murphy
Following in the nimble footsteps of Twyla Tharp and most recently Justin Peck, choreographer and dancer Jakob Karr has turned to the music of a contemporary singer/songwriter to create a narrative dance musical. Country music star Orville Peck, whose full-length albums include "Pony" and "Bronco," provided the inspiration for Ain't Done Bad, which is now playing at New York's Signature Center (but is not a Signature production). While the show lacks the hallucinogenic grandeur of Illinoise or the profoundly affecting experience of Movin' Out, the sum of its parts makes Ain't Done Bad a worthwhile and breezy midsummer diversion.

Karr, who is notably a first-place runner-up on season six of "So You Think You Can Dance," has said that he was immediately drawn to the songs by Peck, an openly gay artist, and in particular was attracted to the singer's vocal theatricality and forthright lyrics. "As a fellow queer artist," Karr explains in a program note, "I feel it's important that we tell stories that uplift and honor our community."

The title of the show comes from "Fancy," a Reba McEntire song Peck covered on his EP "Show Pony," and contains the lyric: "I charmed a king, a congressman/ And the occasional aristocrat/ I got me a Georgia mansion/ And an elegant New York townhouse flat/ And I ain't done bad." The song is not incorporated in the production, but its motifs imbue the story.

The wispy thin plot of Ain't Done Bad focuses on a young man in the South coming to terms with his sexuality, and the characters are depicted in broad strokes. The center of the parable-like story is The Son (Karr), who lives with his supportive and affectionate Mother (Megumi Iwama) and combative Brother (Ian Spring). The family's home is domineered by The Father (Adrian Lee), who is abusive, prone to violence, and disapproving of his queer son.

The Son, with the encouragement of his glittery and fabulous Friends (Jordan Lombardi and Yusaku Komori), goes to the Big City, where he experiments with sex and eventually finds true love (Joshua Escover) and acceptance. The spare production elements (lighting by Philip Lupo; scenic design by Lupo, Joey Coombs, Blake Schulte; and costumes coordinated by J. Marie Bailey) effectively help convey the character's prodigal-son-like odyssey.

The pairing of Peck's songs (which are presented in their original recordings with Joi Marchetti's appropriately respectful sound design) and Karr's choreography would seem to be strange bedfellows, to say the least. Peck has a rich, earthy baritone, which combines the dark rebelliousness of Johnny Cash and the swooning seductiveness of Elvis Presley. Karr's swirling, propulsive choreography, which merges elements of ballet, modern, and musical theatre, seems ill-suited to the characteristic restraint of country music.

Yet, as with many romantic couplings, opposites do indeed attract, and the music and dance complement each other effectively. Karr, with his killer extension and athletic virtuosity, plumbs the eroticism from songs such as "Roses are Falling," and he draws out the romantic yearning in Peck's cover of "Unchained Melody." Additionally, Karr receives excellent support from his ensemble, who breathe glorious life into the stock figures they are assigned to portray.

Running about 80 minutes including an intermission, there is some repetitiveness in the group dance numbers (particularly in the family tussles) and a lengthy curtain call/ encore could be cut. Still, as a showcase for Karr's choreography and Peck's country music, there are numerous pleasures to be sure. And that ain't bad.

Ain't Done Bad
Through September 1, 2024
Irene Diamond Stage
The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current performance schedule: