Musical revues without narrative texts are tricky little beasts.
They can work splendidly when unified by a single composer such as Fats Waller ("Ain't Misbehavin' "), Duke Ellington ("Sophisticated Ladies") or Stephen Sondheim ("Side by Side by Sondheim").
Such shows give insight into the songwriter's heart simply by immersing you for a few hours into the world of his sounds.
But what do you make of "The All Night Strut," a revue of songs that jumps from composer to composer from the 1940s to 1930s to 1950s to 1920s?
Now playing at the Theatre in Old Town for an indefinite run, "The All Night Strut" is a pleasant 90-minute diversion, nicely performed by four elegantly dressed singers, tailor-made for nostalgia buffs who can remember where they were when the songs were first sung.
For the rest, the music just flits like brightly colored butterflies. It's pretty, but it never lingers long enough in any time or place to make an impression.
The show, the debut production of a new for-profit company, Rick Draughon Co. Ltd., has been scheduled for off-Broadway in the winter of 1991, according to the producer, director and program. Originally conceived, directed and choreographed by Fran Charnas, it played Ford's Theatre in Washington and at a New York supper club in the late '70s, but didn't last very long there.
Now it has been "freshened up" with new choreography, arrangements and songs. Steven Cahill, musical director and on-stage piano player, and choreographer Christine Shaker made the revisions. But Cahill, despite his obvious love for and skill with this material, has not succeeded in making these diverse numbers cohere into a satisfying whole.
A Detroit newspaper gave the revamped show rave reviews when it opened there earlier this year, but New York still seems a big stretch for this little strut.
Most of these songs aren't half-forgotten. "In the Mood," "Fascinating Rhythm," "Ain't Misbehavin' " and "As Time Goes By" have already made indelible impressions on the American ear. Even "I Love a Piano" and "A Fine Romance" conjure up Michael Feinstein's more recent elegant renditions.
The performers, although good--especially at harmonies--are not electrifying.
The men are the best: James Darrah, with a meltingly sweet tenor, summons up every nuance of romance from "And a Nightingale Sang" and "I'll Be Seeing You," and A. J. Vincent does a haunting version of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" in his mellow bass.
It would be a treat to see these performers reappear on the San Diego scene.
Ronnell Bey doesn't show how hot she can be until she gets down to the second half with William Spivery's "Operator," in which she belts out such marvelous lyrics as "Operator/Information/Get me Jesus on the line") in thundering Gospel style.
Laura Lewis looks every inch the elegant blonde, especially as she moves in Shaker's seductive dance designs, but strains to keep up with the on-stage band in "In the Mood."
Shaker's choreography is teasingly suggestive and brings a level of energy that makes the show visually exciting. The men are the best dancers, too, with Darrah doing the sole tap number, but all the performers get quite a workout.
Still, the show's inability to capture period feeling of the music is exemplified by the limitations of the costume design.
All the performers look elegant in Rosemary Ponzo's evening club attire--the women are especially scrumptious in their satiny, rhinestone-studded hot pink and blue. But Depression-era songs such as "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" and "Just a Gigolo" would go down a lot better in a threadbare coat than a tux.
The set, designed by Ron Keller, a nightclub with neon sign, exacerbates the shallowness of the vision. Despite Kevin Connaughton's lighting effects, which make the "nightclub" recede in the background for some of the more sensitive songs, the atmosphere never dims enough to allow the meaning behind the songs to really take over.
As long as the songs remain songs and not windows back through time, "The All Night Strut" will remain a pleasant interlude, a collection of numbers better suited for a club than a show.
"THE ALL NIGHT STRUT"
Conceived by Fran Charnas. Directors are Steven Cahill and Christine Shaker. Musical direction and additional arrangements by Steven Cahill. Choreography by Christine Shaker. Lighting by Kevin Connaughton. Costumes by Rosemary Ponzo. Set by Ron Keller. Stage manager is D. Brad Cassil. With Ronnell Bey, James Darrah, Laura Lewis and A. J. Vincent. At 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. for an indefinite run. Tickets are $15. At 4040 Twiggs St., San Diego. (619) 298-0082.