The South Florida theater season has ratcheted up into high gear with three, five even six openings in a single week, plus we have advance stories and feature stories coming. We will be posting a new story nearly every day and sometimes twice a day. Therefore, if you don’t see a review of a show that has opened while looking at the top of the front page, please scroll down the page or use the search function. And visit often.
By Bill Hirschman
Before the show begins, you’d expect Swing! Swing! Swing! to be one more in a line of steadily improving but endless jukebox revues at Broward Stage Door Theatre honoring the Greatest Generation aural scrapbook.
You’d expect once again that performers, whose parents may not have been born when the music was popular, will respectfully croon their way through a pleasant procession of familiar standards designed to stimulate the unconsciously enhancing memories of the patrons.
You’d be wrong. From the opening drum riffs, rippling bass and piano fanfare, you are put on notice: This show is going to resurrect the oft-forgotten vitality of the period and blow out the roof.
The skill, power and imagination that conceiver Kevin Black and his colleagues have invested make this a contender for the best revue Stage Door has mounted, as good or better than last summer’s The Soul of Motor City. You don’t have to be a senior citizen with a good memory to summon up the verve and energy of the era; this crew evokes a vibrant immediacy as if you have been sent back in time.
The material ranges from pulse rousing “Jumpin at the Woodside” to a smoothly blended “Tuxedo Junction” to a tender “Embraceable You” and back to a Byzantinely writhing “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” more challengingly convoluted than anything by Drake or Kanye.
Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the show is the complex sophisticated arrangements. Some of them honor the originals but often they change tempos to produce a fresh interpretation of hoary standards. There’s the first half of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” sung like a slow sensual ballad before speeding up to the familiar pace. The ever lovely ballad “Someone To Watch Over Me” is delivered with a jaunty trot. Some interweave several numbers at once like an expert seamstress with such confections of “Stormy Weather” with “Come Rain or Come Shine”, and “Clap Your Hands” with “I’ve Got Rhythm.”
What the audience will never know is that most of this original show did not exist a few weeks ago except in Black’s head. There were few written orchestrations or vocal arrangement charts, although Black had staged some numbers on cruise ships and industrial shows. At best, there were generic lead sheets. Black, musical director Ben Bagby and assistant musical director Michael Friedman worked with on-stage talent to experiment, tweak, refine and reproduce what Black played for them. Given the quality, sophistication and complexity of what you hear, this stands as a significant achievement.
That talent is, indeed, solid: the mellow baritone of Don Seward, memorable as Coalhouse Walker in Actors Playhouse’s Ragtime; the smooth chanteuse sound of Sharyn Peoples; the lively tenor of dancer Danny Durr; the sloe gin fizz soprano of Alexandra Van Hasselt, the stylings of slender Elijah Word, and last, but not least, the low smoldering voice and outstanding terpsichorean chops of Emily Tarallo who is quickly becoming one of most high-profile dancers in the region.
Black’s shows have a consistent structure: Songs are grouped into thematic sections like “A Sentimental Journey” or “The Harlem Blues” or “A Gershwin Rhapsody.” Songs slide into each other with barely an opportunity for the audience to applaud, but achieving a gentle propulsion so that the production never flags.
Among many standout moments are Word giving a Calloway smooth “Minnie the Moocher” as Tarallo struts and shimmies with a scorching sexiness. Another is Peoples and Seward’s scat duel in “Hep, Hep, The Jumpin’ Jive”
An equal partner is the band, headed by recent Nova Southeastern University grad Friedman on piano (who gets to perform “Rhapsody in Blue” and “I Love A Piano” as solos), plus the old pros Rupert Ziawinski slapping that upright bass and the virtuoso jungle drums of percussionist Roy Fantel, both of whose beaming faces show they relish being in their element. Bagby has done an enviable job blending the voices like a master chef.
As he has done with other productions, Black insists that if performers are on stage but not in the spotlight, they remain deep into the emotional moment created by a soloist, reacting like actors to whomever is singing.
Visually, Black rarely lets the show stop moving except for the ballads; everyone is swaying and bopping. All of the singers except Seward and Peoples are dancing much of the time with choreography by Black, Durr and Tarallo. And Bagby has put together a tap dancing number with performers atop tables and the piano that eventually pulls in all eight performers and pianist Friedman.
Everyone connected to the show seems to be working at a higher level than usual: Michael McClain’s elegant art deco nightclub set invested with different moods by Ardean Landhuis’ lighting, a parade of glittering gowns and tuxedos from Jerry Sturdefant, all overseen by stage manager and technical director Paul O’Donnell.
So give credit where credit is due: Over the past few years director Black, who honed his skills on cruise ships, has been mounting money-saving revue after revue at Stage Door for several years with genres singling out every decade up through late Motown. During that time, the quality of these shows has ratcheted up step by step. He has cherry-picked from each production one or more talented colleagues until he now has this strong team who can do justice to the vision in his head.
The result can be seen in this unassailable revue that erases any sense of a recycling retread aimed at manipulating an older audience. This one stands on its own two tap dancing feet.
Swing! Swing! Swing! plays through Nov. 20 at the Broward Stage Door Theatre, 8036 W. Sample Road, Margate. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Running time is 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission. Tickets are $38 – $42 with $16 student tickets. Call 954-344-7765 or visit www.stagedoortheatre.com.