Photo by Jeff Bellante
A swingin’ good time
In total darkness, four voices allure an anticipating audience; the curtain rises and the big band begins. Suddenly, it doesn’t feel like you’re sitting in the audience of the Gateway Playhouse, but instead, a dimly lit cabaret.
It’s no surprise that this show feels authentically ‘Broadway.’ Director Charlie Marcus, who appeared in the first national tour of “Swing!” in 2000, paired up with choreographer Desireé Duarte (original Broadway cast of “Swing!”) and associate choreographer Beverly Durand, who originated the West Coast Swing feature in “Swing!” on Broadway.
Though the dances — the jive, Lindy, hip-hop and, of course, swing — take center stage, there are vocal standouts, too. Under a spotlight and layered atop a ukulele, singer JP Qualters croons, “What good is melody, what good is music?” before scatting his way into the big company opening, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing).” The rousing number sets the mood for the entire show, two hours of seriously impressive moves and endearing little storylines.
Qualters is one of four voices that carry you through this celebration of swing and jazz. In his Gateway debut, he brings an effortlessly cool energy to the stage in numbers like “Throw That Girl Around” and “Kitchen Mechanics’ Night Out.” He even treats the audience to a tap dance.
Maceo Oliver shows storytelling expertise in “Bli-Blip,” partnered with Kate McCann. But he’s got swagger, too. In “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” he joins a hip-hop dance number and hysterically dons a cowboy hat for the western number, “Take Me Back To Tulsa”/“Stay a Little Longer.”
McCann is a powerhouse on stage, first in fast-paced numbers like “Bounce Me Brother (With a Solid Four)” before pausing for the more thoughtful “I’ll Be Seeing You,” as Thomas Sutter and Stephanie Brooks take the stage for a beautiful ballet during a WWII section.
In Act II, McCann honors Ella Fitzgerald, who would have been 100 this year, during “Blues in the Night,” as Shanna Heverly and Tislarm Bouie portray a lover’s quarrel in a seductive dance.
Stephanie Gandolfo does a lovely job at “Skylark,” but steals the show during “Cry Me a River,” which features trombonist Will Marrin.
The storylines are simple, but movements nuanced enough to effectively communicate them. Samantha and Brian Lawton take center stage for the Lindy-hop in “Kitchen Mechanics’ Night Out” and “Boogie Woogie Country,” with impressive steps and tricks requiring a level of trust only a husband-and-wife team could maintain. Hannah Jean Simmons and J. Morgan White are delightful together, portraying a slightly nerdy couple finding their way together in “Dancers In Love.” Akina Kitazawa and Jesse Jones move together impressively, combining their dances with acrobatics that leave the audience stunned and applauding each time they take the stage.
Dancing with the Stars pros Damian Whitewood and Ekaterina Fedosova sizzle on stage as the Latin couple in battle number “Show Me What You Got,” with the cha-cha, samba, salsa and freestyle moves pulled straight from the hit TV show. But this time you’re not screaming at your television set — you are jaw dropping and cheering for them live.
The band, led by Robert Felstein, entertains the audience from a bandstand on-stage, not confined to the pit. Bassist Ross Kratter and trumpeter John Brierly also become part of the show, lending an instrument or a riff.
Simple, soft lighting is aesthetic gold, complementing the high-energy company. The dancers use the space expertly; there’s always something to look at while you enjoy the band. The set is simple: a bandstand framed by black and ivory piano keys, enhanced by set pieces that drop down to set the time period.
The music may be from the 1930s, but young and old audience members alike could be seen tapping their foot and itching to jive in their seats. Though someone sitting behind me scoffed at a lack of a plot, this reviewer begs to differ. Swing dancing is about trust, about partnering and about relationships. It is also embedded in history, as it took over Harlem and brought people of all races together in one dance hall, the Savoy.
“Swing!” is evidence that you don’t need many words to tell a story, and J. Morgan White summed the feeling up well in his bio: “To see us dance is to hear our hearts sing.”
And man, do these dancers’ hearts sing for “Swing!”
Theatre: The Gateway Playhouse, 215 South Country Road, Bellport
Schedule: Through June 24.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission.
For more information, call The Gateway at (631) 286-1133.
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