Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"Swing!" A Brisk Trip on the Light Fantastic

Jordan Cyphert and Megan Farley in the Little Theatre's "Swing!" News-Progress photos by Keith Stewart
By Dan Hagen
The scene: an urban night club during World War II, and if the atmosphere is particularly realistic, that’s because the bricks and the loading dock are the actual back wall of the Little Theatre, cunningly incorporated into the scenery.
More than Jen Price-Fick’s set is cunningly done in this musical, Swing!, directed and choreographed by Amber Mak and Todd Rhoades.
Unencumbered by plot in any but the most abstract sense, Swing! swings from bebop to scat singing to torch songs at a brisk pace that never flags.
Sound problems lost us Brady Miller’s Boogie Woogie Country during the dress rehearsal, but those ought to be fixed when the show opens today.
Colorfully costumed by Jeannine La Bate (orange shirts, blue fringed cowboy jackets, the works), this show is all song and — particularly — dance, and as my friend Bart Rettberg pointed out, a great deal could have gone wrong with the show that didn’t. The dancing is furious yet fairly flawless.
Lee Ann Payne and John Stephens perform ‘All the Things You Are’
When this show opened on Broadway in 1999, the people who could remember these song and dance numbers first-hand were already in their 60s. Many are now gone, a fact that has to shift the reception of the show somewhat. We’re looking at a lost world being evoked.
I think two of the songs bookend World War II particularly well. One is the high-octane delivery of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy by Megan Farley, Danielle Davila and Chloe Kounadis, a number particularly fixed in time that is nevertheless curiously timeless. The other is I’ll Be Seeing You, sung by Lee Ann Payne and illustrated with a ballet by Cameron Edris and Davila. The bittersweet reality of wartime loss remains haunting in that song.
I want to single out three of those dancers — Edris, Miller and Daniel Gold. They rocket across that small stage, leapfrogging people, backflipping and self-trampolining spread-eagled in a try at defying gravity. Edris and Davila also charm in the pantomime-like Dancers in Love.
Lyrics aren’t always necessary. Jordan Cyphert, so naturally sunny, slinks well past sundown in an Apache dance with Farley to the tune of Earle Hagen and Dick Rogers’ 1939 jazz standard Harlem Nocturne (you know, the Mike Hammer theme). And the singers and dancers take a break to let the onstage orchestra shine in the jazz standard Caravan. Adam Blakey and Robert Brooks have a couple of fine saxophone solos during the evening.
John Stephens and Corbin Williams take the period love songs in easy stride. While Williams is sweetly cynical in Throw That Girl Around, the clarion-clear Stephens sings the lovely Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein number All the Things You Are.
The dance finale, with all the dancers popping like corn, is one crowd-pleasing highlight of the show. Another more intimate one is a pair of favorite done-her-wrong songs played as a dialogue between youth and a sadder, wiser maturity.
Colleen Johnson belts out the great torch song Cry Me a River (really written in the 1950s but perfectly at home here) and is answered by Payne with what her mamma done told her in the equally lyrical Blues in the Night. When Johnson hammers the “NOW you say you love me…” lyric, she finds us a frisson.
You know, the last six decades haven’t only seen corn and soybeans blooming in the Central Illinois summer sun, but professional theatre too, thanks to the Little Theatre in Sullivan.
Art in the rural Midwest. We tend to forget what a rare, exotic and delicious crop that is, if only because the unlikely longevity of that theater has made us so familiar with it.
But we shouldn’t forget that. The day-to-day courage of theatrical professionals always impresses me. They work hard. Their lives are bright and busy and lonely, their defeats public and their triumphs ephemeral. They take risks we probably wouldn’t, enduring chancy incomes and itinerant existences to fulfill the incandescent promise of their own talent. And they share the resulting light and warmth with us a dozen times a week on stage, in the children’s show and the main musical, all for nothing more than a Visa charge and an ovation.
However any particular evening’s performance goes, I always appreciate that, and wanted to take this opportunity to say so.
Incidental intelligence: Swing!, a musical conceived by Paul Kelly, spotlights the music of the Swing era of jazz (1930s–1946) and artists like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman, and continues through July 12.
The show has lighting design by Michael Cole, stage management by Jeremy Phillips and musical direction by Kevin Long. The performers include Danielle Jackman, Mollyanne Nunn and Collin Sanderson, and the musicians include Colin Rambert, Erik Opland, Dan Wendelken, Austin Seybert and Chris Hartley.
For tickets, call The Little Theatre On The Square Box Office at 217-728-7375. 

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