A Mixed Jukebox

Jukebox musicals are tricky things. You can’t depend on the quality of the book to save you; if there is a book, it’s skimpy at best and shoehorned at worse. Hopefully, the music itself provides a theme, but usually you have to depend on the casting or staging to save you. Sometimes it can work spectacularly, as in “Ain’t Misbehavin”. Sometimes it doesn’t. Alas, for “The All Night Strut”, which we saw last night at The Colony Theatre in Burbank, the pieces didn’t come together.

The All Night Strut” is a celebration of the music of the 1930s and 1940s: Harlem, wartime music, and post-war music. Although the website descriptions purport that there is a unifying theme, the show is really just a collection of songs that attempt to evoke memories. There is no underlying story, and there are no characters (although the four singers, according to MTI at least, have distinct “personalities”: “A party girl”, “A down-home girl with lots of soul”, “A romantic balladeer”, and “A consummate storyteller”). So this isn’t a jukebox musical with a storyline in the sense of shows like “All Shook Up” or “Marvelous Wonderettes”. It also doesn’t celebrate the songs of a particular artist and attempt to tell that artist’s story, as “Ain’t Misbehavin’”, “Jersey Boys”, or “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” did. It is perhaps closest to “Sophisticated Ladies” in era and style, but it does not make each song into a vignette; it is more of a choreographed concert. Concerts depend on the choice of the music, and the music in this show was chosen to evoke memories, as opposed to a specific theme or style (such as “Bubblin’ Brown Sugar” did for Harlem). The show was packed with songs: 16 in Act I, and 13 in Act II. They included, to give you an idea of the range, “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, “Minnie the Moocher”, “Rosie the Riveter”, “I’ll Be Seeing You”, “Juke Box Saturday Night”, “Operator”, “As Time Goes By”, and “Lullaby of Broadway”, with dates ranging from 1928 to 1959, not presented in any particular date order, except for the WWII medly. “The All Night Strut” was concieved by Fran Charnas

Sometimes, a show like this can be saved by its casting and direction. I still remember the strength of the cast for “Ain’t Misbehavin’” or “Sophisticated Ladies”: pure talent. The story for “The All Night Strut” was mixed. The strongest was Jennifer Shelton () in the Alto/”A down-home girl with lots of soul” slot: she was a great singer and truly enjoyed entertaining. I was particularly impressed with her on “Operator”, a gospel-themed number. Also strong was Scotch Ellis Loring () in the Baritone/”A consummate storyteller” slot: He interacted well and sang great. The other two actors struck me as off in some way—not that they were bad, not that they were not enjoyable—but something was missing. In the Soprano/”A party girl” slot, Jayme Lake () didn’t quite seem to have the right vocal tone in some numbers, and came off as too choreographed. I wanted to see more of her personality come through, and I didn’t get the feeling that I was seeing it. In the Tenor/”A romantic balladeer” slot was Michael Dotson (). Michael was perhaps the weakest, coming across as wooden and a little too boyish. On some numbers he was vocally perfect; on others it seemed the wrong voice for the song. I should note that there is a distinct possibility that my problems may not have been the cast: it may have been the direction and choreography by Murphy Cross () and Paul Kreppel (), for I got the distinct feeling during the show that every movement and gesture was choreographed, meaning there may have been too much direction/choreography for this show, which suppressed the actors personality. In a concert-type show like this, you need the actor’s personality (or some at least what should appear to be the actor’s personality) to shine through.
[All actors are members of æ Actors Equity ]

Musically, the show was great but could have been spectacular. Musical direction was by Dean Mora (), who runs his own big band and played the piano on stage. Mora had a great personality that shown through; the audience would have enjoyed just listening to him and his trio for two hours! The other members of his trio were Jim Garafalo on bass and Ray Frisby () on drums. What would have made it spectacular? Even more of a big-band sound… meaning some brass and perhaps a saxaphone. That’s not to say the trio wasn’t great: it was the trio (and Jennifer Shelton) that provided the energy for this show. There was a reason the audience stayed after the lights went up to hear the band finish the playoff, and to give the band a rousing round of applause.

Technically, the show also didn’t “wow” as past Colony shows have. The scenic design by Stephen Gifford was a multilevel squarish platform that didn’t evoke a particular location or period; combine that with minimal props (as usual, from MacAndME), and its easy to see how any sense of time or period for these songs wasn’t there. The lighting design by Luke Moyer was odd: lots of flashing leikos (as opposed to moving lights), and some moving mirror lights to provide the primary spots proved more distracting; I found myself at times looking at the lights instead of the stage. The sound by Rebecca Kessin was mostly clear and crisp, although there were a few microphone blurbles, and I found myself wishing for the days where you didn’t see the ubiquitous microphone taped to the face. Casting was by Patricia Cullen, and Leesa Freed was the Production Stage Manager. Colony Theatre is under the artistic direction of Barbara Beckley.

The All Night Strut” continues at The Colony Theatre () until May 1, 2011. You can purchase tickets through the Colony Website. There will also be a special night of Dean Mora’s Big Band Music on April 27.

In an era where theatres seem to be contracting their seasons (for example, the Pasadena Playhouse has one show less than in previous years, although the bankruptcy could be the reason) or going under entirely, the Colony has expanded their season to six shows. The 2011-2012 season consists of YEAR ZERO (June 1 – July 3, 2011); ON GOLDEN POND (July 27 – August 28, 2011); SHOOTING STAR (September 14 – October 16, 2011); TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT (November 9 – December 18, 2011); OLD WICKED SONGS (February 1 – March 4, 2012) and DAMES AT SEA (April 11 – May 13, 2012). Looks to be an interesting season.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Next weekend brings another concert: (this is a concert heavy year, it seems): Brian Stokes Mitchell at the new Valley Performing Arts Center. May starts with our penultimate Pasadena Playhouse production, “George Gershwin Alone“, on May 7. The weekend of May 12-14 will bring the “Collabor8 Dance Festival” at Van Nuys High School, which is always excellent. The third weekend in May is currently open, but I expect that to change. The last weekend of May brings Cabaret” at REP East on May 28. June begins with “Year Zero” at the Colony Theatre on June 5, but most of June is lost to the college visit trip (but who knows — we might go see “Always Patsy Cline” at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville). July should hopefully start with “Les Miserables” at the Ahmanson on July 2 (pending hottix), and continue with Jerry Springer: The Opera (July 8, Chance Theatre, pending ticketing); “Twist: A New Musical” (July 16, Pasadena Playhouse, ticketed); “Jewtopia” (July 17, REP East, ticketed); Dolly Parton (July 23, Hollywood Bowl, pending ticketing); “Shrek” (July 23 or 24, Pantages Theatre, pending ticketing); and “The Sound of Music” (July 30, Cabrillo Music Theatre, ticketed).