It's probably no surprise that many of the performers in "Dance 'Til You Drop" are better at telling the story with their feet than their mouths.
The play looks back on Depression-era dance marathons, inspired by the story of Callum deVillier, whose gravestone in Minneapolis' Lakewood Cemetery identifies him as the world record holder at 3,780 hours (a photo appears in the program, so this may be the only time in theater history when a cemetery is a spoiler).
A framing device finds deVillier (Pearce Bunting) working as a St. Louis Park barber in 1969, but his memories take us back to the 1930s for most of the show, when young Cal (played by Patrick Charles Jeffrey) and a bunch of others jitterbugged through a marathon that dragged on for more than five months, with only brief, hourly breaks.
The script, by Carson Kreitzer, lightly floats the notion that dance marathons were a proto-reality show, complete with showmances, manipulated story lines and real people becoming "characters." But the story is told mostly through dance in this collaboration between the History Theatre and Collide Theatrical Dance Company.
That's probably a good thing, since the few moments when the dancers must grapple with dialogue are iffy. Honestly, though, there's so much movement, energetically choreographed by Collide's Regina Peluso, that the performers can scarcely catch their breath long enough to speak.
All of the dancing is backed by Doug Rohde's hardworking live band, featuring dazzling vocalist Katie Gearty and Bunting, who effectively doubles as the dance contest's host, a slightly less venal version of the character in the Jane Fonda dance marathon movie "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" that won St. Cloud native Gig Young an Oscar. In a show full of standards such as "Stardust" and "St. James Infirmary," the stunner is Gearty and Bunting harmonizing on "What'll I Do" while the dancers literally fall asleep on their feet.
Peluso's bold choreography serves the story, with the dancers fainting and faltering, but it's also quite lyrical, with haughtily elegant Heather Cadigan Brockman a standout as a dancer who dreams of a movie career.
Gearty nails the vocal stylings of a chanteuse from nearly a century ago, and Bunting shifts fluidly between the sincere charms of the 1969 deVillier and the more malevolent ones of the emcee. In between numbers, there's a romance on the dance floor that isn't terribly interesting, and the show is frequently interrupted by an unnecessary chorus of two that comments on the action and blocks the aisles of the History Theatre. Both feel like attempts to assert the "theater" half of the notion of "dance theater" but "Dance 'Til You Drop" is at its best when it listens to its own title.