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A CurtainUp Review

The Rhythm Club
By Susan Davidson >

If one is willing to accept the premise that The Rhythm Club is a work-in-progress, which it is, then I think it is fair to say that the show is good but needs work.

Set in Hamburg, in 1938, against the backdrop of anti-Semitism, political turmoil, and artistic censorship, the story revolves around three young people and their love for the hip but verboten music of the time -- swing. Composer Matthew Sklar has written a highly derivative score which, providing you like the New Orleans/Harlem jazz that is its source (I do as did the rest of this afternoon's audience), is terrific.  The 26-year old Sklar's music, to put it in jive, swings like a gate.  And the band puts it over very well indeed.  Chops they've got.

Jodi Moccia's choreography borrows heavily from other recent musicals that have paid homage to the acrobatic lindy and bebop dances of the 30s and many of the numbers -- especially the first and second act openers -- are stunners.  The dancing is good and the singing, adequate to good.  The costumes are somewhat somber and the set -- nothing but windows waiting to be shattered -- a reminder that homes at this time were no longer safe from intrusion. Those who looked out saw a way of life destroyed and those who looked in violated more than privacy.

After the first act's boy meets girl plus another boy meets same girl story line is established, author/lyricist Chad Beguelin sets up several parallelisms.  One of the guys is Jewish; the other, Aryan.  The girl, who has been trained to sing classical music is persuaded to try swing, to become the band's "canary".  All three have what today's equivalents would call "issues" with their parents.

In the second act, which is far more cohesive than the first, the Nazis have escalated their attacks against the music they considered "degenerative" because it was cultivated by blacks, promoted by Jews, and a bit too sexy for their liking. Besides, it wasn't German. Except for The Rhythm Club's last stunning scene,  such prejudices and reminders of censorship are handled somewhat limply.

In fact, though the music is hot and the plot cool, The Rhythm Club is a trifle bland.  Jeremy Kushnier, Footloose's only saving grace, gives a performance that is energetic and not without its charms but his mannerisms get a bit repetitive, i.e. annoying.  Tim Martin Gleason as the Jewish composer/pianist (a stand in for the author, no doubt) is miscast; and Buzz Mauro, a Signature regular, plays his one-dimensional character, owner of the club, in a one-dimensional way.  The women are uniformly strong. Barbara Walsh's performance as the generous-hearted Jewish mother is affecting.  As the girl who joins the band, Lauren Kennedy sings sweetly and, when given the moves, dances well too, but it is Megan Lawrence as the girl who wishes she were the front singer (as well as the love interest) who almost steals the show. 

Much of this musical is based on real people and real incidents.  In his book, Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany, Michael H. Kater, Professor of History at York University in Toronto, discusses at great length a German swing band known as the Weintraub Syncopators, who played and danced in defiance of the Gestapo.  Somehow that academic tome conveyed more of the highs and lows of the era and those who lived it than The Rhythm Club does.  But as I said, The Rhythm Club is a work in progress. 
Book & Lyrics by Chad Beguelin
Music by Matthew Sklar
Directed by Eric Schaeffer

Starring Jeremy Kushnier, Lauren Kennedy and Tim Martin Gleason; with Megan Lawrence, Kirk McDonald, Kevin Kern, Barbara Walsh, Florence Lacey, Larry Cahn, Jonathan Hogan, Buzz Mauro, Marsh Hanson and Joe Kolinski.
Ensemble:  Tesha Buss, Gina Carlette, Catherine Chiarelli, Brien Keith Fisher, Michael Goddard, Jamie Harris, Joni Michelle, Rusty Mowery, Jim Osorno, Jennifer Swiderski and Denton Tarver. 
Scenic design by Derek McLane
Costumes by Gregg Barnes
Lighting by Jonathan Blandin
Sound Design by Tony Angelini
Orchestrations by Don Sebesky
Music Director, Robert Billig
Dance Music Arranged by Gordon Lowry Harrell
Choreographed by Jodi Moccia 
Signature Theatre, 3806 South Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington (703) 820-9771
Signature website:
The Rhythm Club's website:
September 5 to October 22, 2000, then on to Chicago and then scheduled for Broadway in January 2001. 
Reviewed by Susan Davidson October 2, 2000 based on October 1, 2000 matinee

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