‘Swinging on a Star’ Has Its Ups and Downs


Just like Bing and Bob riding a fake camel against a rear-projection desert in “Road to Morocco,” lyricist and sometime-composer Johnny Burke certainly did get around.

“The poet,” as one Chicago wise guy nicknamed him, enjoyed the career of the classic gun-for-hire tunesmith, cranking out all types of songs for Tin Pan Alley, the Hit Parade, the movies and more--from “Pennies From Heaven” to “Misty,” with one composer after another.

There’s a mist hovering over many of Burke’s better-known lyrics, a dewy, comforting quality to his starry-eyed visions. (Burke was, in fact, obsessed with stars, moonbeams and dreams.) You tend not to respond to a Burke lyric with a “Wow. Clever,” even the funny ones. His work was essentially self-effacing. But check out the wordsmithery found in the first two lines of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”: “A country dance was being held in a garden / I felt a bump and heard an ‘Oh, beg your pardon.’ ” Those lyrics reveal a brand of concision, wit and scene-setting on the fly that most songwriters couldn’t touch.


Burke’s output receives the standard revue-sical treatment in “Swinging on a Star,” a 1994 diversion now making its area debut at the International City Theatre in Long Beach. It’s an uneven though pleasant enough show, as assembled by writer Michael Leeds (it had a brief Broadway run in the 1995-96 season) and as presented here in the newly swanked-up, burgandy-toned ICT auditorium.

Sometimes it’s more than pleasant. When Alaina Reed Hall delivers “Misty” or “It Could Happen to You,” director caryn morse desai’s staging achieves a higher, more relaxed and mellow level of professionalism.

And when a truly sparkling triple threat like Jennifer Shelton does, well, just about anything, the show evokes something described so often by Burke’s lyrics: Star quality. Shelton has it.

We needn’t delve too deeply into the chronological structure or conceptual song groupings found in “Swinging on a Star.” There’s a Chicago speakeasy intro (“What’s New”), followed by a Depression-era Bowery scene (“Pennies From Heaven,” plaintively and movingly sung by Daniel O’Callaghan), followed by a Hit Parade radio broadcast (the jive-inflected “Apple for the Teacher”) and a USO show (“Polka Dots and Moonbeams”).

Act 2 begins in a hotel ballroom (“Imagination”), moving then to a condensed version of Burke’s “Road” movie work (plus a non-”Road” tune, “Going My Way”). The finale whisks us to a Manhattan supper club for, among others, “Moonlight Becomes You” and “Here’s That Rainy Day.”

The seven-person show foists an awful lot of shtick at us, all evening, and morse’s desai’s cast tends to oversell it. Mic Thompson’s plentiful choreography tends toward busyness--Burke’s lyrics sometimes get lost in the shuffle. (I liked tap specialist Dexter Jones’ running-in-place moves, though he needn’t treat every moment as an audition for itself.) The six-piece onstage band is only adequate; tempos tend toward the sluggish.


The revue itself feels overfull. Burke himself would likely admit that a lot of this material wasn’t Grade A. But then “But, Beautiful” comes along, here featuring the beguiling Shelton, and you think: That’s a simple and direct and lovely lyric line. (Best-ever version: Tony Bennett’s, accompanied by Bill Evans on their first album together.) Burke wasn’t a fancy sensibility. He knew the value of honest sentiment.

* “Swinging on a Star,” International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends March 11. $27-$35. (562) 436-4610. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Alaina Reed Hall, Stephen Breithaupt, Susan Hoffman, Dexter Jones, Jennifer Shelton, Daniel O’Callaghan, Nancy SinclairEnsemble

Lyrics by Johnny Burke. Written by Michael Leeds. Music by Johnny Burke, Joe Bushkin, Erroll Garner, Robert Haggart, Arthur Johnston, James Monaco, Harold Spina, Jimmy Van Heusen. Directed by caryn morse desai. Musical director Robert Brandzel. Choreographer Mic Thompson. Tap choreography Dexter Jones. Scenic designer Susan Gratch. Lighting by Liz Stillwell. Costumes by Diana Eden. Sound by Paul Fabre. Stage manager Michael Alan Ankney.