Legendary record producer Phil Spector used to be remembered for a recording technique called The Wall of Sound, a densely layered racket achieved with several musicians crammed into the studio. The Colony Theatre concludes its stellar season with “The All Night Strut,” a densely musical wall of songs entirely absent of the spoken word.
It’s an extremely simple tribute to the classic American songbook covering very specific years from the first Great Depression through the post-World-War-II boom. Four extremely gifted musical actors (Michael Dotson, Jayme Lake, Scotch Ellis Loring and Jennifer Shelton) cover every single last tune with wit, humor and sweetness. Each performer breathes life and back story into all the songs. They’re even called on to fill in for the lack of an orchestra, but I’ll get to that later.
Director/choreographers Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel describe the songs as emblematic of an electrifying time in American history. During the 1930s, the clubs of Harlem nurtured a rough-edged, energized dance music called Swing that quickly reached craze status. The dance was the perfect escape to help America through tough times, the melodies providing a satisfying emotional release from all the wartime separation and loss.
Meanwhile, the world of 2011 is mired in the midst of some of the same collective pain —earthquakes, tsunamis, meltdowns, revolutions, economic collapse, Charlie Sheen, and so on.
So what initially seems like a flimsy excuse to trot out a bunch of golden oldies for the Sunday matinee crowd — who voraciously devour big-band hits from the good old days — begins to have a cumulatively soothing effect over the two-hour running time. Songs like “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” touch our senses personally in a way no other art form can duplicate. These timeless melodies peel away the years and make you feel young again.
The chronological set list has a graceful blend of wartime storytelling and bittersweet lyrics. From “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “Minnie the Moocher” all the way to “Lullaby of Broadway,” each selection evokes a nostalgic memory of a certain place and time.
And not all of the subject matter overwhelms with love and loss. “Juke Box Saturday Night” brings the ensemble together in harmonious convergence for a joyous celebration about letting loose to your favorite vocal groups. “Rosie the Riveter” even has baton-twirling.
For every obvious song choice like “In The Mood” or “White Cliffs Of Dover,” there’s a lost nugget like “Java Jive” or “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar.”
When performing as one, the ensemble is solid. But on solo endeavors, the men outshine the women. After a chilling a cappella intro by Loring, Dotson gives a positively resonant rendition of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” Dotson also impresses on the pretty ballads “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square” and “As Time Goes By.”
Solid accompaniment on bass by Jim Garafalo, drums by Ray Frisby and piano by Dean Mora can’t mask the fact that a few horns or strings would have helped fill in the sound immensely. As it stands, the cast is called upon to play mouth trumpets, hand percussion, even break out their tap shoes, which only magnifies the show’s sense of flimsiness.
Luckily, irreverent choreography and willing performers win the audience over, making “The All Night Strut” a memorable crowd-pleasing distraction from our slow-motion apocalypse.
James Petrillo is a screenwriter and actor from Los Angeles.
What: “The All Night Strut”
Where: The Colony Theatre Company, 555 N. Third St., enter from Burbank Town Center garage
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays until May 1;
Question-and-Answer Talk-Back performance with the cast on April 21
Tickets: $20 to $42 (student, senior and group discounts available)
Contact: 818) 558-7000 or visit www.colonytheatre.org