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|A CurtainUp Review
Louis Prima must surely be smiling from the great beyond. The official opening of Swing! is the third current musical in which "Sing, Sing, Sing" (co-written with Andy Razaf and L. Berry) is a high spot (Fosse is a holdover from last season and Contact, this season's winning new dance play). As played by Casey MacGill and The Gotham City Gates and danced by the turbo-charged company, it's a fitting finale for this tuneful, toe-tapping song and dance revue.
To get things straight. Swing! is not the answer to those handwringers who lament the dirth of new book musicals with songs you can sing and smartly choreographed dancing. It's a revue without pretensions towards a plot, unless you want to count a gossamer bit about a dating couple as a story. But who needs a plot in a show with a singers and dancers who pack such a wallop? This is two hours of songs that will ring in the new millennium with familiar chord after chord from the old, all freshly presented without so much as a hint of Y2K or any other glitches.
To borrow the title's punctuation mark: It's not art! It's not cerebral! What it has to offer is a good time for the whole family. In short, it's a show perfectly timed for the good time season.
When the willowy, dusky-voiced Ann Hampton Calloway sings "I'll Be Seeing You" as Scott Fowler and Caitlin Carter do a dreamy jazz ballet you have singing and dancing at its very best. The multi-talented Calloway's lyric writing skills add many neat little touches to several standard hits like "Stompin' at the Savoy" ( to think that syncopation outwitted segregation) and the amusing scat-talkin' "Bli-Blip" in which she is joined by Everett Bradley. Bradley, who was in the original New York company of Stomp is a charismatic singer, as is young Laura Benanti who last year made an auspicious Broadway debut as Maria in The Sound of Music. Both have a fine sense for the comic.Photo: Scott Fowler & Caitlin Carter, by Joan Marcus
While Calloway, Bradley and Benanti have top billing, the band, Michael Gruber and the incredibly agile company are all stars in this marathon of tour de force west coast, country-western, Latin and traditional jitterbug swing. A number of the individual couples like Ryan Francois and Jenny Thomas perform to their own choreography and are established stars in the ever expanding world of swing. They were the Lindy champions in 1997 The American Swing Dance Championships and the U.S. Open Championships. To some theater goers the range of choreographic variations under the umbrella term swing or neo-swing, will come as a revelation. Seasoned swing enthusiasts will recognize this show as a culmination of a nation-wide dance craze that has been building for two decades -- a boon for dance studios and merchants of fedoras and other fashion trappings of the 40s. (Zoot suits have become hard-to-find, high-priced treasures in second hand clothing shops). Photo: Ryan Francois & Jenny Thomas, by Joan Marcus
A look at the musical numbers list (see end of production notes) will have your ears ringing with melodies you've heard over the years. Most are written by people whose names have become legends of the big band era, though there are also new numbers like "Kitchen Mechanics' Night Out" and "Rhythm" by the show's band leader CaseyMcGill. These numbers follow each other at the same lightning speed that the dancers, in small groups and as a company unit, fly about the stage -- literally so when Beverly Durand and Carol Bentley, harnessed like trapeze artists, fly in and out of their partners' arms.
Not to be ignored in the star lineup are the show's designers. Thomas Lynch's art deco edged moving band stand has a neat Paramount-Roxie-Savoy Ballroom flavor. William Ivey Long's delectably colorful and inventive costumes add sizzling authenticity: The knock your socks off suits worn by the band members, Caitlin Carter's costume that exactly matches Conrad Korsch's big bass in "Harlem Nocturne", a demure blue dress that unfurls like a New Year's party favor into a sexy spaghetti strap number . . . Long never seems to run out of witty fashion statements. Imelda Marcos would go wild for his shoes! Kenneth Posner's lighting supports Lynch and Long's magicianship with flair.
If audiences were allowed to dance in the aisles (The St. James hardly has the room), I'd say as young as 6. Probably, ages 8 would have less of a problem sitting still. Swing! will give grandparents who are old enough a chance to provide post-mortem stories about their days of going to the Paramount to see a movie plus stage show with a band and lead singers à la Ann Hampton Calloway, Everett Bradley and Laura Benanti (even those fabulous double-dipper entertainments didn't have this kind of full-featured dancing though!).
Some caveats: 1. The St. James has two upstairs levels -- the second balcony is quite high and far back and several people who have sat in the side section of the first level have complained about obstructed views. 2. Your ticket may end up costing you more than you anticipated given the distinct possibility that you'll be exiting the St. James with an irrepressible itch to do more than tap your feet but get into the swing yourself. A quick "swing dancing" Google search revealed (see our favorite search engines) thousands of swing-related sites indicating clubs and studios throughout the country; and a search at Amazon, kicked up a number of learning videos (see links below).