Theatre Review: “Swing!” at the American Cabaret Theatre

Phoebe Tamble and Nic Herring in “Swing!” at the ACTLast Thursday night, I drove downtown to the American Cabaret Theatre (ACT) to see “Swing!” as directed and choreographed by Kenny Shepard and Carol Worcel, with musical direction by John Austin Butsch.

This high-energy collection of songs and dances from the 1930s and 1940s is a TREAT.  It is gorgeous to look at and it sounds great.  On my drive home, I just kept thinking about how restored I felt.  I hadn’t even known I needed a beauty fix until “Swing!” fulfilled that need in me.

Several people, after I gushed to them about this show, said, “Had you not seen ‘Swing!’ before?”  The kindness and understanding in their voices made me think that maybe I was the only person on the planet who was seeing this show for the first time.  According to Wikipedia, “Swing!‘” ran on Broadway for more than a year and was nominated for the 2000 Tony Award for Best Musical.

According to the ACT program, the original concept was by Paul Kelly.  The original direction and choreography was by Lynne Taylor-Corbett.  Marc Routh, Richard Frankel, Steven Baruch, Tom Viertel, and Jujamcyn were the original Broadway producers.

“Swing!” is what my friend Dane calls a “jukebox musical” (not as a criticism, just as description.)  I.e. – there is no plot.  The dancers and singers enhance the storytelling within the songs using various actions, costumes, and props, but what pulls the songs and dances together into a satisfying whole is the fact that they all come from the same jazzy time period in American history.  I suppose that if the quality of the performers was ho-hum, this show would be, too, even more so than a ho-hum show that could rely on its story to help carry it.  But when the performers’ skills and everyone’s attention to detail are excellent, as in the case of this production, the show is fully a pleasure.

There are three main components to the show: the Singers, the Swingers, and the Stingers.  It is difficult to discuss them separately because they are seamlessly integrated in the show, but I’ll try:

The Singers include power vocalists Missie Hirsch, Deaon Smith, Karlton D. Turner, and Carol Worcel.   Any of them could carry a show solo, so it is a special richness to get to hear all of them in one evening.  I was delighted by the specificity of meaning in Hirsch and Turner’s musical gibberish “Bli Blip.”  I was blown away by the emotion in Hirsch’s rendition of “Blues in the Night” and in Smith’s “Stormy Weather,” each with dance captain Vickie Klosky dancing. 

To my surprise, my throat caught during the military “USO” sequence.  I have never had to say goodbye to a serviceman boyfriend, but I teared up anyway when Hirsch sang “I’ll Be Seeing You.”  And I melted when Carol Worcel and dancer Tim Hunt sang “I’m Gonna Love You Tonight.”

The Swingers include five lovely women and five hot men, all of whom are amazingly lithe.  Nathalie Cruz, Vickie Klosky, Alyssa Scotten, Jenny Shoup, and Phoebe Tamble are the female dancers.  Nic Herring, Tim Hunt, Jason Johnson, Rick Shinkle, and Michael Worcel are the male dancers.  They use a variety of dance styles to good effect.  I am sorry that I don’t have the vocabulary to name the dance styles, but I enjoyed seeing all of them!  Every element – from flashing ankles to jazz hands to intricate flips and turns – is crisp.  The lifts performed by Jenny Shoup and others often took my breath away, they were so creative and/or elegant.  I loved the joyfulness in Michael Worcel’s and Nathalie Cruz’ “Kitchen Mechanics Night Out/Shout and Feel It” medley, too. 

Oh, I have too many favorite numbers to name all of them!

The Stingers are the band members, conducted by John Austin Butsch.  Butsch also plays the piano.  Greg Gogeine is on bass.  Dave Schurger is on drums behind a Plexiglas sound shield.  Dorothy McDonald is on reeds.  Cody Arnholt is on trombone.  Gary Graziano is on trumpet.

The band members are arranged in an attractive line across the middle of the ethereal, multi-leveled set under silhouettes of dancers whose creamy appearance reminded me of cameo jewelry.  (Set designed and lit by Bernie Killian, with set dressing and properties by Rodney Tolliver.)

Sometimes the band members come out from behind their music stands and interact with the Singers and Swingers.  Cody Arnholt, the trombonist, accompanies Carol Worcel in “Hit Me with a Hot Note and Watch Me Bounce,” for example.  The twinkle in Arnholt’s eye made me want to hug him.  What a cutie!   Arnholt and Worcel have great chemistry in “Cry Me a River,” too, later in the show.

And I loved the steamy-funny way that Alyssa Scotten dances with Greg Gogeine as he plays his string bass during “Harlem Nocturne.”

If I have any quibble with the show, it is that the drummer does not get to take a solo the way the rest of the musicians do.   I love me a good drum solo.

There are a gazillion smooth costume changes, with each outfit more glamorous than the last and, again, excellent attention to detail.  I loved the women’s sparkling eyelids, for example.  They caught the light like stardust.  Donna Hutchens is the costumer supervisor, with assistance from Blue-Eyed Events, Annette Duncan, Cathy Petraits, and G. Scotten Talent Center.

The sound design is by Matthew Cunningham.  During the intermission of “Swing!” I got to chat with Cunningham about “Bare,” a show he is directing for All Alike Productions to be performed at the Wheeler Arts Center on July 24-27, 2008.   I’ll write more about that in a future post.  I was also interested to learn that part of his sound design for “Swing!” includes an arrangement of speakers and other equipment so that the performers can hear themselves and each other more effectively.  I had always thought that sound design was limited to scene change music and sound effects – doorbells ringing and so on.

The stage manager for “Swing!” is Wendy Taylor.  The spotlight operators are Leighe Disbro and Donna Jones.  Will Brown is the deck manager.  One of these days I will get around to having conversations with people like them, too.  I suspect that their jobs are also more complicated than I know, but they all make it look easy in this show.

When I contacted the American Cabaret Theatre for a photo to use here on my blog, I learned that the ACT has a new Marketing & Public Relations Director.  Her name is Erin Monahan.  Break a leg at your new gig, Erin!

Thursday night, I knew at the beginning of the final number that I was going to stand to applaud.  The woman sitting next to me did not stand, but when the lights came up at the end, she said, “I’m exhausted!” and laughed.  I knew that she meant it in a good way: exhausted to the point of contentment.  That is how I felt, too.

“Swing!” continues at the American Cabaret Theatre through July 6.  Please call 317-631-0334 to make a reservation.

Hope Baugh –

7 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “Swing!” at the American Cabaret Theatre”

  1. It’s certainly possible to have a jukebox musical with a plot, for example, Jersey Boys or Mamma Mia!

    A jukebox musical is a musical that doesn’t have any original songs, but rather features existing pop songs. Producers save a few bucks in rehearsal time, because there are no re-writes from the composer and lyricist 😉
    The producers are also hoping to lure people who would not otherwise go see a musical to come see their show, because they already like the original songs (hence, the proliferation of musicals based on the music of the Beach Boys, John Lennon, Bob Dyland, etc.)

  2. Thanks, Tim! I had assumed that “jukebox musical” meant no plot. I am glad to have the more accurate explanation.

    As always, thanks for reading and commenting!

    I didn’t realize how much I liked swing music until I saw this show. It will definitely be a draw for me from now on.

  3. Hope,

    Actually, a musical with no plot is usually termed a “musical revue.” Those may even have a “through-line” (quasi-story) but not really a “plot.”

    Tim’s right – “jukebox” refers to the music making up the score rather than the story.

  4. Well, if I hadn’t misquoted you, I wouldn’t have gotten all this other good info.

    So…thanks, Dane, for your service to the cause (of my blog.) 🙂

  5. Hope–thanks so much for the plug to! (Oops, looks like I just plugged it too!) We’d love to have you come check out “bare” in July!!

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