Swingtime features the captivating music and style of the 1940’s wrapped in a story that reflects the period’s prevailing cultural themes of discrimination and oppression. The narrative weaves the songs into an engaging story line, sometimes bumpily, but for the most part effectively, so that the they actually reflect aspects of the characters and propel the action. As can be expected, sometimes the struggle to incorporate a song or a piece of history feels manipulated, but the spirited performances smooth out any rough spots and make it well worth the effort.
Writer and director Tom Mallan created fictional characters (with a passing nod to the stars they were likely based on) whose stories reflect what was happening in that crucial point of America’s history. The paths of two performers, one black, one white, diverge not because of talent but blatant racial discrimination run rampant.
Van Leonardo, played with pizzazz by Vince Borrelli, parlayed his radio success into box office appeal, knocking bobby soxers off their feet and driving ladies wild.
On the other hand, Joe Stuckey, his former partner and now a custodian who lives next door to the recording studio, played nicely by W. Ellington Felton, didn’t have the conciliatory manner to bow and buck his way into stardom and sank into oblivion.
Joe’s wife Dorothy, played by the sumptuous Pam Ward, has to fake a Spanish accent and wear a fruit basket head-dress to get air-time as a singer in the era of segregation. Their duet “Blues in the Night” reveals the heartache between the lyrics and Ward follows that with the most stunning rendition of “Strange Fruit” I have seen to date.
Other characters also provide telling glimpses of the times: Tammy Roberts is fetchingly lovely as the Broadway star Judy LeVon who has tucked away her own social stigma to make the big time, and the expressive Laura Lewis portrays a star of Western musicals. Alvaro Rodriguez, a shoo-in for Desi Arnaz, plays Zavier Prado with fiery star power. Zavier’s rise to stardom is diametrically opposed to Joe’s precipitous falls with every missed “opportunity.”
Sometimes the social commentary between the songs feels as contrived and unrealistic as having Joe and Dorothy happen to live next door to the studio. But it’s worth it to get to the rewards of the extensive range of musical numbers, transitions to new jazz sounds and even international snippets such as “A Hot Time in Berlin”.
Though at times the direction may seem perfunctory and not particularly imaginative, there are moments which are priceless. The opening of the second act is down right hysterical. Presenting the songs as aspects of the characters’ personal journeys illuminates the larger national issues.
Adding projections of old footage at the beginning, in specific spots during the show and at intermission bordered on genius, (projection and sound design also credited to Tom Mallan). The old black and white scenes set the tone and provided an unmistakable landscape defining the period. In one of the most remarkable pieces of footage, Fred Astaire “dances” with his shadow which matches him perfectly before veering off into its own steps—steps supposedly performed by Stuckey in his heyday – behind the screen in silhouette, a perfect allegory for the racial profiling of the day. Watching footage of Fred Astaire in blackface intending to do a tribute to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and watching the black performers react with hurt and revulsion provides a rarely seen perspective.
The excellently toned jazz quartet under the direction of Jean Baptiste delivers a smooth musical backdrop and covers a range of styles while being complementary to the vocalists. Baptiste’s superb musical arrangements added new chord selections and syncopated rhythms to some of the old familiar favorites for a modern spin.
Most surprising and satisfying was watching legendary saxophone player Marshall Keys, who has some dynamic musical interludes, add zip and spice to the music and ensemble—not that Pamela Ward needs help spicing. Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, does that woman have pipes, attitude and presence to spare!
You have only one more weekend to catch Swingtime, a show packed with ageless musical numbers along with a look at some challenging years in American history.
written and directed by Tom Mallan|
musical direction by Jean Baptiste
produced by the In Series
reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson