Jody Sawyer (Amanda Schull) is newly arrived in New York to study dance with the prestigious American Ballet Academy. She rooms with Eva (Zo" Saldana), a girl with a street attitude who has a hard time conforming to ABA's rigid discipline, and Maureen (Susan May Pratt), the best dancer in the school, who is also a bulimic bitch with an ambitious horror of a stage mother (Debra Monk). Jody, despite her less-than-ideally- skeletal body type, attracts the attention of company star Cooper (real life American Ballet Theatre superstar, Ethan Stiefel). Over the objections of his rival, company director Jonathan Reeves (Peter Gallagher), Cooper choreographs a wild, rock-driven ballet around Jody, who has, incidentally, fallen madly in love with him.
Think Fame with lots of classical ballet thrown in, add some of the swoon-y romance of The Turning Point, and you have Center Stage, a lightweight but highly likeable and, at times, thrilling film. It's the kind of movie for anyone who cannot watch young theatrical hopefuls getting off the bus in Manhattan without getting a major lump in the throat. The dance classes, rehearsal sequences and backstage shenanigans are rendered with compelling accuracy and excitement by stage and film director Nicholas Hytner (The Crucible, The Object of My Affection). Carol Heikkinen's screenplay is not earthshakingly original but always flavorful, and she laces it with funny, often catty lines that capture the spirit of this particular world. Broadway choreographer Susan Stroman's work is heavily featured and most of the dances exhibit her usual sprightly, energetic sense of fun, choreographed to everything from Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson to salsa and Tchaikovsky. (Cooper's climactic ballet, which features him entering the stage on a roaring Harley is outrageously unfettered, and as over-the-top as anything since that endless An American in Paris ballet.)
Best of all, the film is populated by some of the most talented New York theatre actors around today. Donna Murphy, with severe chignon and awe-inspiring posture, is elegance personified as a grande-dame dance instructress, and has some of the charming authenticity which the great Alexandra Danilova lent to The Turning Point. Priscilla Lopez, who recently did a bang-up onstage impersonation of Frida Kahlo, offers a marked contrast to Murphy as a Latina jazz teacher, who raunchily exhorts her students to give their all to a rocking version of 'Higher Ground' (the film's best number). Monk, who recently gave an absolutely radiant performance in a revival of Arthur Laurents' Time of the Cuckoo, is juicily entertaining, especially when she scoffs re Murphy's character: 'Juliette Simone! I remember when she was Julie Simon and her father managed a Wal-Mart in Jersey!'
Schull, making her screen debut, is affectingly natural and a gracefully accomplished dancer. (And it is a marked relief to see a normal-bodied girl performing, rather than a waifish wraith like The Turning Point's Leslie Browne.) Pratt is an able comedienne and also convincingly conveys the tortured layers beneath the pristine ice princess she presents in class. This film will go far in enhancing the career of the appealing, demonically talented Stiefel; he may even become as much of a matinee idol as Baryshnikov did after The Turning Point. (At any rate, he's a nice alternative for the shrieking 'N Sync-Backstreet Boys fan base.)