The All Night Strut!
Also see Tracy's review of The Graduate
Sometimes a production can look great on paper, but turn out to be less than the sum of its parts. The All Night Strut!, the current production of MetroStage in Alexandria, Virginia, is a case in point, bringing together the usually spirited director-choreographer Thomas W. Jones II, four fine singers and a swinging three-piece combo led by musical director William Knowles - and the results are negligible.
Fran Charnas, who conceived and originally directed and choreographed the show in the 1980s, brought together a treasure trove of songs from the 1920s through the 1950s, ranging in tone from low-down blues to soaring gospel. The problem is that there’s no reason behind the selections and no real structure in how Charnas has decided to place them. One puzzling example is when the cast follows a medley of World War II-era songs, capped by a rousing rendition of Frank Loesser’s “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” with Bessie Smith’s 1920s “Backwater Blues.”
The four singers - William Hubbard, Darryl Jovan, Yvette Spears, and Lori Anne Williams - all have their moments, but again they are isolated moments rather than pieces in a unified mosaic piece of theater. Hubbard’s vocals are grounded and smooth; Spears, sleek; and Williams, wide-eyed and enthusiastic. Jovan has an intense, true tenor voice when he doesn’t overdo the vocal tricks; unfortunately, his overwrought (and up-tempo) rendition of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” becomes actively annoying. Together, they are a well-matched, close-harmony quartet.
Mixed in with the familiar songs are a few rarities. “Java Jive,” a 1941 song by Be Oakland and Milton Drake, equates caffeine with both sex and alcohol through some well-placed double entendres. Other songs get a new spin through time changes or staging, like George and Ira Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm,” here given a Latin beat and a rather aimless dance routine that suggests exasperated commuters, or a knockabout comic vignette to Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern’s “A Fine Romance.”
The three-piece combo, comprised of Knowles at the piano, bassist Yusef Chisholm and percussionist Gregory Holloway, provides a polished sound throughout the show. If only the show itself had had a better internal structure.
The gold standard of this kind of show is “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which features the songs written or performed by Fats Waller and serves as a microcosm of Waller’s life and era. The inclusion of that song in The All Night Strut! just serves to show what’s missing here.