KPBS AIRDATE: January 7, 1993 >
The Theatre in Old Town is moving backward in musical time. Following its return-engagement, wildly successful 33-week run of “Beehive,” the 60s musical revue, they’ve taken down their hair and donned their platform shoes for “The All Night Strut,” a musical celebration of the 30s and 40s.
Musical revues can be a tricky business, but San Diego audiences seem to love them, from “Pump Boys and Dinettes” to the interminably popular “Forever Plaid.” So why mess with a good thing? The same creative team that brought us “Beehive” blithely bebopped into “Strut.”
There’s much less of a through-line in this piece. The songs range from the Gershwins’ fabulous, syncopated “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” of 1924 to the gospelized “Operator” of 1959. What unites them? They span decades and genres and wars. There are ballads, love songs, standards and comic ditties.
Some are so indelibly etched in our minds they’re pretty hard to reframe. How can anyone improve on Cab Calloway’s rendition of “Minnie the Moocher”? Or Bessie Smith’s “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer”? Then there’s “Ain’t Misbehavin'” that got a whole show of its own. And any number of harmonic variations by Manhattan Transfer.
But the resourceful “Beehive” team has done its work well. Director Paula Kalustian and choreographers Jill and Steve Anthony keep things moving well, although they don’t have many dancers to work with. The Anthonys do double duty here. Jill has designed the costumes, which are elegant black and white in act one and just-short-of-garish greens and purples in act two. Steve Anthony gets onstage and steals the show.
A Broadway veteran who recently moved to town, Anthony is a real find. He’s got charm, charisma, agility, and he’s an impressive singer, hoofer, tapper, glider, comic and crooner with an irresistible twinkle in his eye. He manages to make it through most of Act One without really sticking out. But once he does his amazing dance routine in “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” you can’t take your eyes off him, and you spend the rest of the evening waiting for him to do another solo.
This is wonderful for the performer but not for the show. “Strut” should be a seamless ensemble piece, and everyone should appear equally talented. In truth, the other four singers each have their moment in the spotlight. Joseph Stafford Harper does an achingly timely “Brother Can You Spare a Dime.” Tiny, big-voiced Laura Lamun is wonderfully “In the Mood.” Brian Trent sings his heart out in “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” and he and Lamun make a loving couple in the World War II Medley. Tajma Soleil doesn’t seem to come alive until Act Two, and then she’s HOT, especially in “Operator.”
But you don’t get the feeling that they’ve meshed as a team, or that they really enjoy each other yet. Maybe that will come in time. These are the kinds of songs that just get smoother with repetition.
Meanwhile, back at the bandstand, Terry O’Donnell does a fine job as pianist and musical director. It’s cute how he and the band interact with the performers at times, and aren’t just ornaments on the stage.
The new mission of the new Old Town team is professional productions of small, contemporary musicals. They’re proving their mettle, and proving very entertaining.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.