A tap-dancing soul in spirit-world limbo

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A tap-dancing soul in spirit-world limbo
Michela Marino Lerman performs in her show “Once Upon a Time Called Now” at the Joyce Theater in New York, March 20, 2022. Lerman, a tap dancer and jazz musician, conceived the show and directed it with Dana Greenfield. Caitlin Ochs/The New York Times.

by Brian Seibert

NEW YORK, NY.- The tap dancer Michela Marino Lerman is an outstanding jazz musician. In recent years, she has made a place for herself in jazz clubs not always hospitable to hoofers or female players. The shows that her band, Love Movement, performed at the Whitney Museum in 2019 were truly movements of love, parties overflowing with good vibes and brilliance. But for her debut at the Joyce Theater, she’s trying something new: a 90-minute theatrical narrative, “Once Upon a Time Called Now.”

It’s a New Orleans tale, set in the spirit world just before Mardi Gras. Lerman is Kahina, a woman whose ancestors have interceded to give her another chance at life. Guided by the orisha Ogun (poet Orlando Watson) and a Tarot-card-wielding high priestess (vocalist Shenel Johns), she must learn to stop doubting herself and let love into her soul. Then, when her heart is weighed against the feather of Ma’at, she can wake up and live.

Lerman conceived the show and directed it with Dana Greenfield. She wrote the tasty New Orleans-style music with bassist Russell Hall, who leads a raucous eight-piece band. Onstage, she is joined by the Elementz Krewe: four adept tap dancers well cast as the elements earth (Roxanne King), fire (Melissa Almaguer), air (Tommy Wasiuta) and water (Orlando Hernández).

Since Lerman is an inward, all-in-the-music performer, it’s a shrewd choice to give Kahina interior monologues voiced by someone else: actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith. But these recorded monologues, laden with self-help platitudes, exacerbate rather than solve the show’s problems.

The story of Kahina’s journey — learning from Orpheus not to look back, discovering that materialism is shallow — is carried mainly by Watson’s narration. His nimble, sharp spoken-word poems also range, engagingly if tangentially, into topical commentary on the divided state of America, technological distractions and toxic masculinity.

The tap dancing (too often overpowered by the band) comes in between the bits of narration, doing little to advance the story. In standard tap fashion, it alternates between group unison and opportunities for solo improvisation — all high-grade stuff that feels almost superfluous in the narrative context. King and Almaguer get distinctive solo numbers, and a late duet for Wasiuta and Hernández to a lovely jazz waltz is the show’s one extended breath of dance freedom, air and water embodied in sound and motion.

Lerman herself appears more constricted. Her interior monologues rage — “Stop telling me I’m not good enough!” “I’m not gonna take this anymore!” — but it’s when the show around her quiets down that you can hear the great eloquence and power of her feet, never quite let loose despite the theme of self-trust.

At the end, touchingly, she sings in a small voice, “Just remember/Find your center.” By that point, “Once Upon a Time” has arrived at some second-line carnival energy. But Lerman’s strongest artistic voice isn’t realized in this show.

Michela Marino Lerman, ‘Once Upon a Time Called Now’

Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater; joyce.org

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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