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Swing! (12/09/1999 - 01/14/2001)


 

New York Daily News: "The Old Song & Dance"

Imagine that it is the year 2049 and you are walking along Broadway. In one theater, there's "Grunge!", in another "Punk Rock!", in a third "Rap!"

If you're the right age, you may be flushed with nostalgia. But you may also wonder why this brave new world has to get its kicks by recycling the styles and moods of the past.

The new show "Swing" prompts similarly mixed feelings. It is an ebullient and enjoyable return to the rhythms that were all the rage in the 1930s and 1940s.

But it also seems just a little ironic that the last new musical to debut on Broadway in the 1990s should owe so much to a previous era.

In that sense, "Swing" is actually a perfect expression of a decade whose pop culture has been all about recycling and revival.

The strength of "Swing!", indeed, is that the music and dance it celebrates are enjoying a new vogue at the moment. Director and choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett can therefore tap in to some '90s energies.

Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Count Basie are still at the heart of the show, and it would be a very poor thing without them.

The fuel that drives the show is mined from old hits like "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," "Harlem Nocturne," "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree."

And Taylor-Corbett's choreography is essentially a vivid and athletic re-creation of the moves that put our grandparents in the mood.

But there is just enough novelty in the songs and the dancing to give it some feeling of freshness.

In fact, the smartest thing that the producers have done is to look beyond the established Broadway names for their excellent cast. They've brought in new performers for whom, clearly, this music is intensely alive.

Ann Hampton Callaway has both the supple voice and the songwriting talent to put her own stamp on familiar material like Ellington's "Bli-Blip" and Goodman's "Stompin' at the Savoy."

Everett Bradley, too, contributes new material while making the old stuff his own. He performs his own "Throw That Girl Around" as if it were an old classic, and an old classic like "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" as if he had just written it.

And, best of all, the band - the Gotham City Gates - is much more than a bunch of capable pros assembled for the occasion. They are the real thing, a hot, hard-edged combo that shakes out the cozy sense of déj ... vu that surrounds these songs.

Doing the same for the choreography is not so easy. Taylor-Corbett's attempts to inject new influences into the lively but limited vocabulary of traditional swing have mixed results.

Sometimes, as in Carlos Sierra-Lopez and Maria Torres' excursion into Latin Swing, the new fusions are as infectious as the measles and as lively as a kindergarten.

Sometimes, as in various attempts at Country Swing, they're as annoying as the measles and as unruly as a kindergarten.

But at least there is a constant effort to engage with the material and bring it to life here and now.

It may not mean a thing. But it does swing us exuberantly back into one of the liveliest periods of the century that is now closing.


New York Daily News
12/10/1999

New York Post: "Dance Fans, 'Swing!' Is Your Thing"

If you like shows based on specific dances, you're in luck. Broadway is brimming with full-scale productions centered on such styles as disco, tango and tap. And perhaps the biggest hit of the season, "Contact," has virtually created a new form of dance musical.

Now comes "Swing!" a slick, sexy extravaganza of twirling couples who jump and jive with more energy than circus acrobats on double cappuccino.

Accompanied by an eight-piece big band that belts out classic tunes like "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" and "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," these dancers spin, kick and throw each other around with zesty abandon. It's all singing, all dancing, all action.

The show, which opened last night at the St. James Theatre, features some 30 swing numbers, capitalizing on the retro craze that's a hit everywhere from small clubs to TV ads for the Gap. And it's a non-stop treat for the eyes and ears.

Directed and choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett (who did the choreography for the Broadway version of "Titanic"), the show offers dance and music vignettes and a three-way MC role shared by Casey MacGill, Ann Hampton Callaway and Everett Bradley, each of whom sings terrifically.

Callaway and Bradley show great chemistry together, particularly during the comic number "Bli-Blip" when, in syncopated scat, they have a mock conversation during a date at a bar. Callaway has such great range and stage presence it's hard to believe that this is her Broadway debut.

The dances, though, are the real appeal. There's a tap number in which a guy who can't sleep because his upstairs neighbor is playing the drums, is joined by a contingent of hoofers in pajamas -- all dressed in vibrant pinks, purples and reds.

A big USO segment is contrasted with a country version of swing. "Cry Me a River" shows Laura Benanti wooed by wandering beau Steve Armour, who pleads for forgiveness with a trombone solo in which you can imagine the words he's saying. And one piece features two female dancers bouncing on bungee chords.

"Swing!" could hardly be more exuberant or fun. It's a sure winner.


New York Post
12/10/1999

New York Times: "Hit the Hot Notes and Watch 'Em Bounce"

And how would you like your swing dancing this evening, folks? Just straight up, in the manner of the big-band era? Or would you prefer something a tad more exotic -- say, in the style of a square dance or a pajama party? Or how about something really wild, with dancers who punningly swing from a contraption made of bungee cords?

Yes, it's all on the menu in ''Swing!,'' the new musical revue that takes its exclamation point seriously. And rest assured that each number will be cheerfully packaged in upbeat colors and served with a very big smile.

Oh, dear. In the new, improved and unapologetically square Times Square area, it is getting ever harder to distinguish between the tourist-luring themed restaurants and the tourist-luring themed shows that are slowly taking over the neighborhood like battalions of chipper Mouseketeers.

Blues, midcentury rebel rock 'n' roll, the incendiary choreography of Bob Fosse, the subversive songs of Stephen Sondheim: all are being offered on Broadway at the moment in smooth, synthetic puddings of shows that carefully remove the sting and sharpness from their original material.

Now there is ''Swing!,'' which opened last night at the St. James Theater, with direction and choreography by Lynne Taylor-Corbett. With its eager, limber cast moving to the gleaming sounds of a fine band called the Gotham City Gates, it is by no means the worst of the lot. But when you start remembering the cats of ''Cats'' as a group of revolutionary hipsters, it may be time to retreat from the revue circuit for a while and let your taste buds grow back.

In the days of supper clubs and rooftop night spots, the kind so glamorously represented in early talking pictures set in Manhattan, ''Swing!'' might have been a floor show, an entertainment to serve as a background for cocktails and small talk. Dragged into the foreground and made the single focus of attention for two hours, ''Swing!,'' which features the cabaret singer Ann Hampton Callaway, passes as a slick, bland blur.

Think of the production -- which pays homage to the big-band music that reached its popular zenith during World War II -- as ''Smokey Joe's Canteen,'' the latest variation on the format of ''Smokey Joe's Cafe,'' the long-running revue that set the tone for the new breed of sanitized song-and-dance shows. (It isn't coincidental that Jerry Zaks, who directed ''Cafe,'' is credited as the production supervisor of ''Swing!'')

''Smokey Joe's Cafe'' took the rock and pop hits of Leiber and Stoller from the 1950's and 60's and bleached them of their danger quotient, of their raunch and sass. People who grew up listening to that music could leave the show thinking that their youth had been rather wholesome, really, while younger audience members hadn't been given a hint of the convention-baiting sexuality that had so outraged their parents' parents.

The music resurrected in ''Swing!,'' a style associated with big-band leaders like Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Harry James, was less divisive; it appealed to a wider range of age groups. But it, too, was the music of youth, and it shaped the way a whole generation not only danced but also talked and dressed. Although Benny Goodman may have looked like a C.P.A., he was once as cool as Puff Daddy is today.

The cool factor, however, is as conspicuously absent from ''Swing!'' as it was from ''Smokey Joe's.'' Mixing classic works by musicians like Duke Ellington and Johnny Mercer with new pastiche pieces, the show (even the World War II canteen sequences) seems to take place in some squeaky-clean, confectionary limbo, reflected in the candy-colored sets and lighting of Thomas Lynch and Kenneth Posner, respectively. Even when the energy is at full throttle, there's a distancing quality of preciousness.

Those hoping to catch a glimmer of the original visceral impact of swing dancing would do better to check out Susan Stroman's ''Contact,'' which translates the style into contemporary terms in its second act. Ms. Stroman's choreography can be as sleekly synchronized as anything in ''Swing!,'' but it also emphasizes the distinct personalities of its dancers.

''Swing!,'' on the other hand, is strongest in its big ensemble pieces, especially its opening and closing numbers, that dazzle by turning a multitude of performers into one well-oiled dance machine. While Ms. Taylor-Corbett generously credits the dancers who created their own routines in the show, there is surprisingly little flavor of individual styles. It's the conceptual gimmicks that matter in each of the show's segments, the bungee cords and the bedroom slippers that turn out to be tap shoes. And for the most part, they're too darn cute.

Earnest attempts have been made to present swing as a sensual liberator, a force that brings out the looseness in the uptight. The metamorphosis is repeated ad infinitum. The singer Laura Benanti melts from a stiff, operatic soprano into a jivin' chick, while her dress is similarly transformed before our eyes. (The bright, athletic costumes are by William Ivey Long.)

A nerdlike Everett Bradley drops his briefcase to learn to ''throw that girl around,'' while a plump country-western type (Robert Royston) finds romance when he starts to swing. In each case, the progression is less from square to hip than from perky to perkier.

Occasionally, a more authentically erotic element sneaks in, or a whiff of maverick character. Carlos Sierra-Lopez and Maria Torres deliver a torrid lesson in swing, Latin style. Scott Fowler's angular dancing conveys an appealing emotional jaggedness, although I certainly could have lived without the prissy swing ballet he has been given.

The long-stemmed Caitlin Carter, who was a vividly wry presence in the current revival of ''Chicago,'' brings cool heat to her impersonation of a bass fiddle (in Earl H. Hagen's ''Harlem Nocturne'' with Conrad Korsch playing the bass) and to a steamy duet with the strapping Edgar Godineaux to the great Arlen-Mercer standard ''Blues in the Night.''

Ms. Callaway provides the aural backdrop for this pas de deux, as pianist and vocalist, and her full-throated interpretation here is her finest contribution to the show. Otherwise, with her 70's-style layered haircut and tailored pantsuits, she is a most unswinging presence, suggesting a no-nonsense career mom who happens to have this amazing talent for sounding like musical instruments. And her scat duets with Mr. Bradley, in which they play a pair of squabbling lovers, are surreal in ways that were surely never intended.

Of the show's soloists, who also include Michael Gruber, only Casey MacGill, the ukulele-strumming band leader, has the kind of shrugged-off charm one associates with being cool in the swing era. And the musicians, conducted by the pianist Jonathan Smith, sound swell, although the ways they're used to create dialogue between instruments and performers can cloy.

It is telling that the evening's high point is performed without dancers or singers. That's the band's version of Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol's ''Caravan,'' which blissfully embodies the idea of swing as a collective effort in which each individual voice (i.e., each instrument) has its say. In this sense, it's the American Dream incarnate, and the show's one persuasive reminder of a time when patriotism, far from being corny, was positively hip.


New York Times
12/10/1999

Variety: "Swing!"

Are these girls getting frequent flier miles? The women of "Swing!," a bouncy new revue that celebrates the American dance craze that's in vogue again, spend an awful lot of time airborne, tossed hither and thither by their dapper dancing partners with a precision that's nothing short of breathtaking. In two hours of song and dance, some of them never seem to hit the ground.

That airborne feeling will be shared by fans of this dance genre and the music that inspired it. High altitudes, high spirits and high energy are the watchwords of this exuberant show, which features some top-flight talent not normally found under a proscenium: jazz vocalist and songwriter Ann Hampton Callaway, British pop singer-songwriter Everett Bradley, retro big band leader Casey MacGill and his Gotham City Gates. The fleet, astonishingly agile team of dancers includes both Broadway hoofers and dancers who've made their names as swing-dancing champs, some of whom provide their own choreography.

Although it's clearly been assembled to capitalize on the recent renewal of interest in the swing-dancing genre, "Swing!" doesn't feel processed and packaged in the manner of some revues (and some book musicals, for that matter, such as "Saturday Night Fever"). The people onstage display a real connection to this music --- even those who've never previously specialized in it, such as the terrifically talented Broadway ingenue Laura Benanti, formerly Maria in the recent revival of "The Sound of Music," now using her lovely soprano to torchier effect singing a richly comic "Cry Me a River" to a young man with an amazingly expressive trombone.

The show's format is straightforward, alternating ensemble dances and pas de deux with song solos or duets, the occasional comic novelty number thrown in for good measure. Directed and choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, "Swing!" moves along swiftly and with ample variety, and doesn't overstay its welcome, ringing down the curtain with a big finish just after 10.

William Ivey Long provides an eclectic mix of colorful costumes, some splashy and contemporary (white leather tennies?), some of old-fashioned, silken refinement. The set by Thomas Lynch likewise attempts to bridge the distance between the swing era and our own, though its neon colors and deco details don't jibe entirely gracefully.

But generally "Swing!" succeeds admirably in its attempt to put a contemporary shine on the sights and sounds of another era. The new compositions , including songs by Callaway, MacGill and Bradley, hold their own against venerable tunes from Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Count Basie. They're played with polish and punch by MacGill and his band.

Taylor-Corbett's choreography adds an athleticism born of the aerobic era to the signature movements of swing dancing. Electrifying to watch though it often is, Taylor-Corbett's more aggressively gymnastic choreography may not be to all tastes, but she also provides some more beguiling pas de deux that mix ballet and swing-inspired movements fluidly.

Callaway provides much of the most impressive vocalizing. A stately, stylish performer who easily commands the stage, she has a voice of big, brassy beauty. She has clearly been influenced by the women who made famous the songs she performs here, and she does both her forebears and the composers justice. Whether she's scatting through a duet with Bradley on Duke Ellington's "Bli-Blip ," or accompanying herself at the piano on Harold Arlen's moody "Blues in the Night," Callaway brings an authoritative polish and casual feeling to her singing.

The dancers are no less accomplished. Many are passionate proselytizers for the form: One of the show's relatively unsung stars is a magnetic young Lindy Hop specialist named Ryan Francois who has the physical nonchalance and sunny grace of a young Fred Astaire. (He's also the associate choreographer.) His fluid limbs and the shining air of pleasure in movement he exudes are an argument all their own for the enduring appeal of this dance style, and reason enough to see "Swing!"

A few routines fall flat, notably a silly bungee-jumping routine that belongs in a circus. The country number also feels a little gimmicky, but the whirlwind dancing by Robert Royston and Laureen Baldovi is a knockout nonetheless.

"Swing!" doesn't push the kind of universal nostalgia buttons that made "Smokey Joe's Cafe," from some of the same producers, a Broadway long-runner. Good reviews and aggressive marketing will be needed if the show is to hold its own on Broadway --- particularly with the ecstatically received dance show "Contact," featuring its own contemporary take on swing, back on the Street in March. But "Swing!" is a pleasing and polished tribute to a particular time and tempo, a lively party that boasts an infectious spirit that mingles nostalgia with a joy in music that's entirely ageless.


Variety
12/09/1999

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