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Off Broadway Reviews

Message in a Bottle

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 2, 2024

The Cast
Photo by Christopher Duggan
When it comes to the art form known as dance theater, the spotlight is definitely shining on Illinoise, which just made a bold jeté from a near sold-out run at the Park Avenue Armory to become a last-minute entry to the 2023-24 Broadway season, a gamble which thus far has paid off in critical praise and four Tony nominations. But fans of dance as a form of nonverbal storytelling would do well to boogie on down to New York City Center and catch the altogether thrilling production of British director/choreographer Kate Prince's Message in a Bottle, which offers up a harrowing tale of refugees from a war zone and is spectacularly set to the songbook of the iconic songwriter/singer and social activist Sting.

The production, which, alas, is only slated for a brief two-week run, scores in every aspect, from the staging to Anna Fleischle's versatile costumes (lots of quick changes) to Andrzej Goulding's imaginative projection design and Natasha Chivers' well-crafted lighting work. All demonstrate what it means to put together a collaboration of the highest order in support of a similar collaboration between music and dance.

Musically, the show offers more than two dozen of Sting's songs, pre-recorded specifically for Message in a Bottle, with new and often quite exciting jazz-flavored arrangements by Alex Lacamoire (Hamilton; Dear Evan Hansen). Sting, along with a few other performers (unidentified in the program) sings what amounts to a score for a two-act, two-hour (plus intermission) knockout dance performance by Kate Prince's company ZooNation.

With all due respect to Illinoise choreographer Justin Peck, Prince's 23 ZooNation dancers upstage Peck's creative work by outperforming in every aspect the art of hip hop dancing, from break dancing to popping to every manner of freestyling and acrobatic moves imaginable. Admittedly, as a result, there are moments when the nonstop action threatens to become head spinning, and occasionally eardrum splitting, especially at the end of Act I when we hear Sting perform the show's title song with the sound amped up for a stadium crowd.

All of the music and accompanying staging is aligned in support of the story that is being presented to us through dance. It opens with great warmth on a happy family scene in an unnamed locale, though feel free to insert your own interpretation of where it is taking place since, sadly, there are plenty of choices as to where refugees once called home.

At the start, we are witness to a courtship (during Sting's "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic"), followed by a wedding. But joyfulness is short-lived, as the sounds of explosions and gunfire interrupt and scatter everyone to the four winds. It is a time of war, and innocent bystanders are turned into refugees in an instant.

What follows is a tale of families being separated, civilians dying or being imprisoned, women being sexually abused ("Don't Stand So Close to Me" was always a creepy song; here it is devastating). Throughout there is little that goes on that is challenging to follow, thanks to Prince's ability to connect music, lyrics, and movement into a single entity, and the extraordinary work by the brilliant and endlessly energized company.

It could all be a deep dive into despair, and even for the survivors there is a depiction of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But if, as Emily Dickinson put it, "hope is a thing with feathers," then eventually there is a shower of metaphoric feathers that pour down on the company in a reprise of "Fields of Gold" through to the end of this exceptionally fine work. If the creative team and the Sadler's Wells and Universal Music UK production people (not to mention Sting) wanted to, they could very well take Message in a Bottle to Broadway without changing a thing (except maybe lowering the volume). Wishful thinking on my part, but maybe they're waiting to see how Illinoise does at the box office. If so, then here's hoping both shows wind up having long and successful runs.

Message in a Bottle
Through May 12, 2024
NY City Center, 131 West 55th Street (between Sixth and Seventh Avenues)
Tickets online and current performance schedule: