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Café Society Swing
The man behind this innovative nightclub was Barney Josephson, a shoe salesman from New Jersey. He took a page from European nightclubs, where he saw the races intermingling on stage and in the audience— musicians, satirists, comics performing in an integrated space with talent the necessary ingredient. As the son of Jewish parents from Latvia, Josephson had faced bias against him as well. He opened Café Society in Greenwich Village in 1938. Café Society Uptown opened the next year and its mixed milieu was a highpoint for civil rights.
The doors closed 11 years later during one of this country's lowest points, The House Un-American Committee investigations and the "Red Scare." Jacobson's being a supporter of human rights and the brother of an admitted communist was enough to bring down Café Society.
At 59East59 Theaters writer Alex Webb revisits the high-spirited jazz era of the nightclub with eight dynamic instrumentalists and four singers, one of whom serves as quasi-narrator. Here is where the show runs into a problem. Barney Jacobson's story is relevant but Webb's book is unfocused with its story told in various guises and varying time sequences.
Evan Pappas is, however an engaging actor and singer. He takes on three roles, first a newspaper journalist digging for dirt on Josephson, a chatty bartender and then Josephson. He also fills in for some group vocals .
The banquet of dynamic instrumentals and vocal renditions attributed to some of the club's famous performers is a treat. It's too bad that the tale of the man behind the landmark club is hazy and fails to gel fluidly and with enough depth to make this a full musical and too much talk to make it a concert.
Directed by Simon Green on a Deco-styled jazzy stage there are examples of the styles of the day. This includes satire and the social protest of Josh White. Singer Charenee Wade presents Lena Horne's hit, "Stormy Weather," with the cool smooth girl band singer style popular back in the 1940s. (This version was markedly different from the angry passion Horne gave the song four decades later in her Broadway show, A Lady and Her Music. ). She recalls the blues of Queen Ida Cox and Sister Rosetta Tharpe's powerful gospel but her musical high point is the dignified rendition of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" that closes the show.
There is evidence of Billie Holiday's familiar laid-back, behind-the-beat style in Cyrille Aimé's, "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" and "All of Me." Aimé's crowd-pleaser, however, is a big band bouncy Nellie Lutcher hit tune of the day, "Hurry On Down." Benny Benack leaves his trumpet for the microphone to deliver Josh White's social protest with "One Meatball." Singers join for some tunes like "Stalin Isn't Stallin.'" As part of the versatile, Allen Harris puts down his guitar and dons a hat to open the show with two original songs by playwright/musician Alex Webb. Later, his rich burgundy wine tone delves into a memorable Billy Strayhorn jazz classic "Lush Life."
Set and costume designer David Woodhead provides an ambiance of the day, with Harris' jazzman hat, stylish gowns for the women, with a series of panels showing the famous satirical cartoons that poked fun at the upscale society in the city.
Café Society Swing is fun to hear and see, offering vibrant music and dynamic performers. However, if you did not know much about Barney Jacobson before, you won't learn much more here.