Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2004
Swing! is the kind of show that I am on record as disliking. It is all song and dance – no script, no plot. I just panned Honky Tonk Angels last week as being a bad example of this mindless genre. But I am happy to report that Swing! is the very opposite. It is excellent example of how entertaining shows like this can be when they sit on a solid base and are done well.
Swing! was created to cash in on the Swing revival of the late 1990’s. The reason it works where other revues fail is that it doesn’t try to have a book. There is nothing more annoying than pointless patter in between songs, performed by actors being “themselves;” or, worse still, a rushed attempt to create characters and jam them into a plot contrived to carry the songs. In good musical theatre the songs come from the characters and move the plot. If there is no plot there is no point in having any characters either. If you have a pile of good music and a bunch of good singers and dancers, just get on with.
So when you get your program for Swing! you will simply find the Mac-Haydn company listed alphabetically as the cast. They are being “themselves” as talented performers, and it works.
There was no doubt in my mind that the Mac-Haydn would be the company to do right by Swing! I knew that they had the singers and dancers capable of pulling it off, and I felt in my bones that Rusty Curcio would be the perfect director/choreographer for the show, which he is. The costumes are by the inimitable Jimm Halliday, so everyone looks just great. And Kristian Perry has done nice things with the two walls and a floor that serve as the “set” for every Mac-Haydn show.
My only concern was the little three-piece Mac-Haydn band, which has sounded mighty thin thus far this season. Listening to the original Broadway cast album I noticed long instrumental sections of the show. Many were dance numbers, but others were obviously showcase pieces for the band. Swing music needs horns, and normally there is not one to be seen at the Mac. Thank goodness, musical director Alexander Rovang has put together a neat little seven piece ensemble that sits in what is usually an entrance to the stage, so they are on stage and part of the show rather than being hidden in a dark corner. The septet consists of Rovang on piano, Mary Rodriguez on drums, assistant company manager Paul A. Colarusso on alto sax, Brian Laycock, who also sings several numbers as a member of the cast, on tenor sax, Todd Hendricks on bass, Peter Auricchio on trumpet and Jon Ferrone on slide trombone. Once they got going my biggest worry became them drowning out solo singers with their enthusiasm.
So let’s see, who knocked my socks off… Oh, where to begin? Let’s start with the singers. It was wonderful to see Renee Brna, Kristen Clark, and Trisha Stever, beautiful and talented ladies who are often relegated to secondary roles or chorus parts in book shows, get a chance to strut their stuff. Halliday has clad them all in stunning gowns. Jenna Noel, another often overlooked talent, also got her solo, but unfortunately it is in a misplaced hill-billy number and she has to wear a silly cowgirl outfit instead of a something splendid.
Tiffany Thornton and Karla Shook, two leading lady types, also get their moments in the sun in flattering ensembles. Thornton is given a little chance to show off her wicked sense of humor, and Shook is given a solid comedy turn in All of Me.
Jamie Price, who has been a stand-out all along this season, did not disappoint with some great numbers like Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy and Take Me Back to Tulsa Laycock sprints from band to stage to sing Blip-Blip and All of Me with panache. Jim Middleton did nicely in several solo and ensemble spots, all decked out in an ice-cream white tailcoat. I thought the quartet of Thornton, Brna, Price and Middleton who opened Act II was just heaven sent!
The talented Michael Shiles, wasn’t given much to do, but he did look dapper in a watermelon pink zoot suit, a trick not many gentlemen could pull off.
Swing! is a show as much about dance as song, and there are six principle dancers in the show – three male: Michael Hildebrandt, Lou Kerscher, and Marc Schaeffer; and three female: Carissa Bellando, Katie Kuhlenschmidt, and Kelly Shook. Schaeffer did not perform at the show I attended, and a variety of people subbed for him, which makes writing this a little tricky. But I am sure that I will be corrected if I have erred in identifying his substitute.
The dancing throughout the show is dynamite. Curcio has done a bang-up job of choreographing a lot of very athletic and demanding dance in the Mac-Haydn’s cramped quarters. Kuhlenschmidt, is a real stand-out athletically – doing splits, flips and jumps effortlessly. Her specialty dance turn with Richard Marston in Act II is a treat. Bellando has two specialty bits – a fiery Latin number and a nice balletic duet with Hidelbrandt as Thornton sings the heck out of I’ll Be Seeing You.
The men are called upon to do an awful lot of lifting and catching, which is tough stuff, particularly when you consider the consequences if they let go of a madly spinning girl by accident! There is, literally, a number entitled Throw That Girl Around, nicely sung by Laycock, but girls and occasionally guys, are tossed about with great abandon throughout the show. Everyone was launched and landed safely at the performance I attended, and it is fun to watch the technique of performing these stunts.
A young man named Gavin Waters caught my eye with the naturalness of his dance style. He is not a featured performer, but his talent is notable in the chorus numbers. I will keep a lookout for him in the future.
I suppose if you really hate big band/swing music and dance it would be possible not to have fun at this show, but from the packed house I attended with I am betting those curmudgeons are few and far between. This show is all singing, all dancing, all talent, all fun. Pack the family in the car and go see it – if you can get seats.
Swing runs through July 18 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs two hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004