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Sara Hogrefe and Kyle Schaefer in the Vancouver production of Tosca Cafe.

There's fun to be had at Tosca Cafe as the decades go by in song and dance, mostly because of the strong international cast of actors and dancers. The characters in this almost speechless dance-theatre piece are mere outlines and the violence, lost and found loves, mental illness and earthquake they endure are only lightly sketched in, but the performances are so engaging that the nearly two hours pass in a flash.

The real-world Tosca Cafe where the work is set was founded in 1919 in San Francisco, which is also the city where the co-creators are based: Carey Perloff is artistic director of American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) and choreographer Val Caniparoli is associated with San Francisco Ballet. But a key inspiration for Perloff and Caniparoli was Canadian, in the form of The Overcoat, the brilliant physical theatre piece by Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling set to Shostakovich that premiered at the Playhouse in 1997 and was produced by A.C.T. in 2005.

There's more Canadiana: Tosca Cafe arrived at the Playhouse via Theatre Calgary, where Perloff and Caniparoli reworked and then restaged it after its 2010 San Francisco premiere. In this new version, three Canadians joined the cast of 10, which already had Vancouver actor Peter Anderson, who the two collaborators had spotted in The Overcoat.

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They were smart to grab him. Even in a roster featuring ex-National Ballet of Canada dancer Rex Harrington (he's now artist-in-residence there and has been a judge on So You Think You Can Dance Canada), Anderson is a dance partner to die for. He turns scenes into comic gold.

Take his duet with Sabina Allemann (ex-National Ballet of Canada and also ex-San Francisco Ballet). Like most of the cast, both play several roles: Here, he's a meek, grey-suited businessman. She enters on pointe to the music from La Bayadère, wearing a dress, a turban and a long scarf, elegantly evoking Russian ballerina Natalia Makarova, who really did visit Tosca Cafe. He is smitten and soon his long, lanky body bends and twists in loving, if delusional, copy-cat moves. It's deliciously ridiculous – including his open, goldfish mouth and enthusiastic bourrées on tip-toe – and makes for more engaging theatre than the serious dancing Harrington does as Rudolf Nureyev, anther ballet star who visited the café during the seventies. Harrington knocks off his solo but Caniparoli's serviceable ballet choreography is dull, with too many nice arabesques and graceful port de bras.

The best movement throughout is the period dancing – the jitterbugging, the disco routine – to a Name-That-Tune soundtrack that reflects each era. CindyMarie Small, an ex-Royal Winnipeg Ballet dancer, did a great free-spirited, barefoot hippie dance. Small has always been a powerful performer who knows how to let the drama live inside her, and even in quiet moments stays true to her character. She also wears costume designer Robert de La Rose's period dresses well.

Three actors provide continuity throughout: Dean Paul Gibson (another Overcoat cast member) as the Bartender and Americans Annie Purcell as the Orphan and Gregory Wallace as the Musician. The story connecting them hardly matters – it's the mute coming together of dancers and actors that is the real point of Tosca Cafe. When Gibson, a stocky man, shadows the petite Allemann in her recurring role as a mysterious dancer in a red dress, something very real and human started to develop between them. It was the kind of interaction that made it worthwhile to cruise the decades at Tosca Cafe.

Tosca Cafe

  • The American Conservatory Theater
  • At the Vancouver Playhouse
  • In Vancouver on Thursday

Tosca Cafe runs in Vancouver until Oct. 29.

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