Two years ago, Portland choreographer Jessica Wallenfels set up a table at Portland Center Stage's annual theater fair with a sign reading, "Do you know Van Morrison?" "I want to do a dance show with Van Morrison songs," she explained at the time. Wallenfels never did get to talk to Van the Man in person, but she did talk to his attorneys—they didn't endorse the idea, but didn't condemn it, either—and went ahead with the project. Find Me Beside You, which opened last Thursday, is a "rock story ballet" that pairs the eight songs on Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, arranged for a cast of 10, with Wallenfels' choreography and a loose plot about young love and betrayal.
As with most concept albums and jukebox musicals, the "story" part of the story ballet feels forced, tacked onto the scaffolding of Van Morrison's music wherever it will stick. Aeden and Bridget, a pair of childhood friends ("Astral Weeks") face some tension when Aeden gets a girlfriend ("Sweet Thing"). She's killed by a car bomb, so the pair move to Dublin ("Cyprus Avenue"), where Aeden falls in love with Bridget's sister Meagan ("The Way Young Lovers Do") while squatting in a house with a drag queen ("Madame George"). And so on. The connections of lyrics to imposed plot are tenuous, but that doesn't hurt Tommy any, and there's a lot to like about this pop-art chimera. The excellent band is led by Eric Nordin, who recently directed the singers in Live on Stage!'s great Songs for a New World—three quarters of whom appear in Find Me Beside You, including Elizabeth Klinger as Bridget and Dave Cole as Aeden. Nordin's arrangements are reverent, and detract not a bit from the originals. Emilee Yaakola, a recent conservatory grad, makes a promising Portland debut as Meagan.
Indeed, Find Me Beside You only disappoints in its unevenness. Wallenfels generally excels at coaxing beautiful movement from untrained dancers, and does so here about half the time. "The Way Young Lovers Do," sung by Norman Wilson while Klinger and Yaakola spin violently about the stage, kills, but other pieces are less memorable—I can't recall any of the choreography in the first third of the show, but the last 30 minutes were absolutely riveting.
Theater! Theatre!, 3430 SE Belmont St., 897-0425. 8 pm Tuesdays-Saturdays. Closes Aug. 14. $20.