Theater Info for the Washington DC region

The In Series Swingtime!

By • Dec 8th, 2010 • Category: Reviews
The In Series
Atlas Performing Arts Center, Washington, DC
Through December 12th
2:05 with one intermission
$39-$42/$25-$38 Seniors/$20-$23 Student
Reviewed December 5th, 2010

From the description of the new musical Swingtime! on the Atlas web site, I was prepared for another show like Closer than Ever or maybe even Musical of Musicals: A cabaret performance with a thin storyline to carry it along. Their summary reads: “Fab songs from the Fabulous Forties tell Swingtime’s story of showbiz, war and discrimination. Six iconic entertainers reunite in New York — where one of them headlines a popular radio show — and face career and identity dilemmas. Like the world after World War II, American swing music reconstructs into new forms, from Be-Bop to Rock and Roll.”

Now playing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Swingtime! is much more than a simple music revue. It’s a fascinating amalgam of musical revue and contextual examination of the period, smack in the middle between the recovery after the Great Depression and the new bleakness of World War II, in the very early stages of the movement toward racial equality.

The popular music of the 40s becomes the soundtrack of the show, a story of seven fictional performers, three of African American descent, three of European and one Hispanic, who work in and around Radio City in New York City, and a nearby deli.

These performers provide not just a representation of the various archetypes of radio personalities, but a much more complex relationship between the performers themselves.

We know now, from the filter of history, that there were huge disparities between what the public was shown and the true relationships between these people. Very often hidden from view, the private colorblindness of friendships between artists, regardless of heritage, was destroyed by stereotype, perception and money.

Tom Mallan’s story centers around Van (Vince Borrelli), a Jack Benny-esque movie and radio personality, Joe (W. Ellington Felton), Van’s former Rochester-like radio partner, now working at a local deli, and Dorothy (Pam Ward), Joe’s wife, who has continued to work in radio now appearing as Latino singer Dolores.

Van has returned to host a special series of shows, with guests Lynnette (Laura Lewis) a musical western star, and Judy (Tammy Roberts) a Broadway star. These friends seek Joe out and try to convince him to return to the air with Van.

The resulting examination of Joe’s reasons for leaving the show, his desire to fight the stereotypical and personally offensive personality he’s expected to present on-air, and the conflict between him and his wife as they try to come to terms with a growing distaste for their roles, is the crux of the show.

Added to the mix are Xavier, the up and coming Latino band leader (bearing a striking resemblance to Desi Arnaz), and Giant (Marshall Keys), a local resident and Be-Bop sax player with a different perspective on his place in society.

These seven exceptionally talented performers, all with pitch-perfect voices and crystal clear characterizations bring songs like Sentimental Journey, Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive, Pistol Packin’ Momma and A Hot Time in the Town of Berlin vividly to life.

Ward’s Strange Fruit is a show-stopper. Controversial as it was then, the song has been covered only fairly recently. Felton’s Smoke, Smoke, Smoke that Cigarette is offered up in glorious defiance. By the time we get to the Three Caballeros, we know that the humor of the song is mixed with the characters’ feelings about each other. It’s a perfect illustration of the problems with presenting a front while denying the truth of these relationships.

This thoughtful and thought-provoking production is definitely worth a watch. Parking is available around the corner from the Atlas.

Director’s Note

Even as the world economy peaked, then crashed between the wars, American culture continued its steady expansion, assimilating and somehow combining influences from a century of immigration and migration. European ‘high culture’ lost its monolithic hold as the sole legitimate cultural source, giving way to jazz and other hybrid forms that still showed their folk roots even as they took on a more sophisticated sheen, from Harlem to Hollywood.

Meanwhile technology was democratizing distribution: film, phonographs, and radio permanently changed and broadened the audience: blue collar and rural audiences now had access, as did, significantly, young people. Their tastes and demands started to swing the entertainment market; artists took note, sponsors took aim. With the power of the advertising industry behind it, American popular culture, targeting youth, would assume a lasting dominance and influence worldwide.

The maelstrom of cultural influences continued to swirl in the 1940s, but ‘swirled in place’ for a moment, as faraway GI’s listened for the sound of the US as they remembered it. Back home, that wheel-spinning becomes a moment of reflection for our protagonists. As they try to shape, keep up with, or just understand the new mass culture, they look for their own place, their own voice, their own face in it. Since they create it, for them popular culture is highly personal. Each new milestone, from the advent of sound movies to the death of Glen Miller, changes the nation’s cultural identity, and leaves the characters searching for their own.

–Tom Mallan

Photo Gallery

Ephriam Wolfolk, Celso Lopez, Marshall Keys, and Burnett Thompson, originating musical director on piano Pam Ward, Laura Lewis, Tammy Roberts, Vince Borrelli and W. Ellington Felton
Ephriam Wolfolk, Celso Lopez, Marshall Keys, and Burnett Thompson, originating musical director on piano
Pam Ward, Laura Lewis, Tammy Roberts, Vince Borrelli and W. Ellington Felton

Photos provided by The In Series.

Cast, in order of appearance:

  • Van Leonardo: Vince Borrelli
  • Joe Stuckey: W. Ellington Felton
  • Dorothy Stuckey: Pam Ward
  • Lynnette Buckston: Laura Lewis
  • Judy LeVon: Tammy Roberts
  • Xavier Prado: Alvaro Rodriguez
  • Giant Marquis: Marshall Keys

The Band:

  • Piano: Jean Baptiste
  • Alto and Soprano Sax: Marshall Keys
  • Double Bass: Ephraim Wolfolk
  • Percussion: Celso Lopez

Production Team:

  • Producing Artistic Director: Carla Hubner
  • Director/Playwright: Tom Mallan
  • Conceived in collaboration with Burnett Thompson
  • Music and Lyrics: The Original Artists (as credited in the program)
  • Music Director/Pianist: Jean Baptiste
  • Lighting: Marianne Meadows
  • Costumes: Donna Breslin
  • Set Design: Osbel Susman-Pena
  • Projections/Sound Design: Tom Mallan
  • Stage Manager: Jewell Fears
  • Production Manager: Mattias Kraemer
  • Marketing & Press Relations: Emily Morrison
  • Sprenger Theatre Manager: Ruben Rosenthal
  • Atlas PAC Front of House Managers: Anastasia Robinson and Staff

Disclaimer: The In Series provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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is founder and Artistic Director of OutOftheBlackBox Theatre Company (O2B2) and General Manager of the Greenbelt Arts Center. Since 2006 Betsy has worked as a director, producer, designer and more. Betsy has also worked with Washington Revels, Arena Stage, the now-defunct Harlequin Dinner Theatre and with community theatre companies both in Maryland and in upstate New York. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Technical Theatre from SUNY New Paltz. Through Hawkeswood Productions, Betsy produces archival performance videos and YouTube highlight spots.

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