Jack Cole’s name may not be as familiar to the general public as those of Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins, two of many choreographers influenced by him, but among the cognoscenti, Cole’s work is greatly admired, establishing his legacy as one of the great dance innovators of the past century.
With one week to go before the show’s first public performance, Chet Walker, the director and choreographer of the musical, “Heat Wave-The Jack Cole Project,” coming to Queens Theatre for a three-week run, is bringing a long rehearsal to a close.
“This is the most precious time of my life,” he tells his cast, a troupe of 15 mostly long-limbed dancers and singers.
The silence as he speaks seems to indicate that everyone in the room is aware of how important they are to Walker and how much this show means to him.
An original tribute to the late choreographer, who died in 1974 at age 62, begins previews tonight at the indoor theater in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
Walker conceived and has nurtured the show for several years, which people have whispered has the possibility of a transfer to Broadway, though no one involved in it wants to discuss the possibility.
One of Walker’s goals in doing the show is to bring Cole’s work to the fore by recreating his dances for a younger generation. “This is a homage,” he points out.
“He is the father of jazz,” said Walker. “Everything on Broadway is connected to Cole.”
Among Cole’s theatrical credits are such successes as “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and“Man of La Mancha.” And he created musical numbers for films like “There’s No Business Like Show Business, “Les Girls” and “Kismet.”
For the new production, Walker has taken 32 of Cole’s numbers and thrust them, most for the first time anywhere, onto the stage. While unable to recreate each number exactly as presented on screen, “I try not to add too much,” he said.
Later, Walker mentioned that that night would have been Cole’s 101st birthday, he said, “This is an historical moment.”
Walker compares putting together a show like “Heat Wave”—the name of a song Cole choreographed for Marilyn Monroe—to preparing a soup, with its many distinct flavors. “You gather all the different personalities and everyone comes with their own spice,” he said.
One of the featured performers is David Elder, a resident of Jackson Heights for the past 22 years who has eight Broadway shows to his credit.
He said during a rehearsal break that he got involved in this production “happenstance-ly,” through a friend, the show’s costume designer, who thought he would make “a great fit.”
Elder auditioned two months ago, and now finds himself in the spotlight bringing to life anew numbers made famous on film by Danny Kaye (“Rhythm of a New Romance” from “On the Riviera”) and Gene Kelly (the title song from “Les Girls.”)
“I knew who Cole was,” he said. “Certain choreographers would reference him. As a dancer, you try to be aware of the greats.
“Cole was more of a rebel. He was unorthodox. He took the basics and put his spin on it. He expected an incredible amount from his dancers.”
Elder, whose credits include “Guys and Dolls,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “42nd Street,” sees the importance in keeping Cole’s work alive.
“As we keep moving forward, I see less and less of the old-school style and approach. I feel a departure from dance that furthers the plot,” he said. “I don’t think there are enough dance shows.”
And he finds working on a brand new piece such as his current undertaking “exciting. It’s a new idea. I think it’s doing a real service, making sure we don’t forget.”
Ray Cullom, who became the theater’s artistic director last year, sees the show as being in step with the company’s new mission, to develop and nurture an increased number of new works.
Queens Theatre and Walkerdance are coproducing the show, one of the most elaborate in the theater’s history.
According to Cullom, the show’s budget is around $250,000. “The lion’s share,” he said, is “to pay the creative people. And the costumes,” which he said are all being made in-house and number around 200.
As the show approaches opening night, scheduled for May 9 as part of the theater’s annual gala fundraiser, Walker said, “We joke and we have fun, but when we have to get serious ...”
He extends a hand that speaks volumes.
When: May 3-20. Wed.-Fri. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed. and Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m.
Where: 14 United Nations Avenue in Flushing Meadows Corona Park
$49 weekends; $42-weekdays