The world première of Little Dancer, now playing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., could benefit from more dancing.

That’s an odd thing to say about a musical about the painter Edgar Degas (played by Boyd Gaines) and the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet who inspired him, but it’s true — the new musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime, the Anastasia movie) soars in its danced moments, but stumbles when it ventures into traditional drama.

Much of this is due to the titular “Little Dancer”, who inspired Degas’s sculpture of the same name. Marie van Goethem, a promising young dancer, is played in youth by New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck, who is a marvellous dancer, using her body to communicate when words and music fail her. Unfortunately, her singing and acting leave much to be desired. Director Susan Stroman and writers Ahrens and Flaherty attempt to offset this by framing the story both literally (in Beowulf Boritt’s scene design, which surrounds the stage with a picture frame, à la a Degas painting) and figuratively through the perspective of an older Marie played by Rebecca Luker, an accomplished Broadway veteran.

The story follows Marie, an impoverished girl who chases her dreams of dancing, running between her alcoholic mother Martine (Karen Ziemba), Degas’s studio, where she models for the painter, and dance class, where she’s rehearsing for a featured role in the next opera — a role that could launch her career if she’s not too distracted by the handsome violinist Christian (Kyle Harris).

Luckily though, the show doesn’t get too caught up in the romantic subplot, and Stroman keeps the friendship between Marie and Degas from becoming Lolita-esque. As a whole, Little Dancer is refreshingly feminist, showing the agency of women of all ages in an era when women were far from achieving any kind of gender parity. Stroman’s direction and Ahrens’s book and lyrics serve as a nice reminder of what happens when women tell stories — the audience is treated to better stories about women.

Ahrens and her songwriting partner Flaherty are strong composers, and it’s refreshing to aurally surrender to a competent new score, which really shines in numbers like ‘Laundry’ and Christian’s Act Two ode ‘Dancing Still’. Flaherty weaves musical themes throughout the show, creating a rich tapestry of sound that is thoroughly reminiscent of the musical’s 1880 Parisian setting. Under Stroman’s choreography, the dancing is magnificent and Peck’s Marie is utterly captivating whenever she moves, particularly when dressed in William Ivey Long’s sumptuous costumes.

The show is far from perfect; Peck could benefit from more singing and acting training, and Ahrens’s book is unwieldy at times, especially when it focuses on Marie’s drab family life. The sound design also falls flat in the wooden boxiness of the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre. As a whole however, Little Dancer is an enchanting peek into the backstage lives of ballerinas and painters. Much like its protagonist, the urchin-like Marie, with some refinement this Little Dancer could become something quite remarkable.

Little Dancer is playing at the Kennedy Center until 30 November. For more information and tickets, see the Kennedy Center website.

Image by Paul Kolnik