You don’t have to be a jazz aficionado to love Café Society Swing. All it takes is an appreciation of good music, soaring talent, and having a great time.
The musical is based on a real place, a club where Black and White freely mixed, both on stage and off.The story is set up by a reporter (Evan Pappas) who desperately needs to sell an article to a newspaper editor who is anticipating a salacious piece. Even though he has warm feelings for “the place where I first saw Count Basie,” the money is more important. The setting has a film noire vibe, all the better to understand that in 1948, there’s real danger for the Josephson brothers in being identified as Communist and in propagating integration. In fact, we learn that Leon has been convicted of contempt of Congress by the House Un-American Activities Committee and sentenced to a year in jail. Barney carries on; this is the tenth anniversary of Café Society.
Big name entertainers,starting with Billie Holiday, performed at the club. It was Barney who recognized that Holiday was the only singer who could do justice to Strange Fruit. Charenee Wade sings with such grace and passion, her performance gives chills. She also rocks the house with Wild Women Don’t Get The Blues.Hers is a voice to listen to for hours on end; her stage presence electrifies the production.
Equally impressive is French chanteuse Cyrille Aimee. She has a magnetic connection with the audience, and sings with the ease of a child at play and the irresistible tenderness of an angel. Her rendition of Stormy Weather recalls the great Lena Horne, but Aimee makes this classic song her own, personal and haunting.
Super sharp Allan Harris is a real dude, dressed in a pinstripe suit, complete with fedora, pocket hankie, and black and white spectator shoes. He has an engaging manner, and a velvety baritone voice reminiscent of Nat King Cole. One Meat Ball was a popular ditty in its day. In the capable hands of Harris, it becomes a rollicking, toe-tapping delight. He projects charisma in abundance; when he fondly introduces each musician in the band, audience members understand that we’ve been given a rare gift. Each individual in the ensemble is an outstanding musician; they all seem to like and respect each other, and to genuinely enjoy playing together.
Café Society Swing often seems more like a friendly jam session than an Off-Broadway show. The intimate setting enhances the in-crowd coziness; the one drawback to such close quarters is that, at times, the trumpet is overwhelmingly loud. While many of the songs are familiar, particularly Where Or When, Lush Life, and What Is This Thing Called Love, several obscure tunes are included less for lyricism and more to move along the story line and political agenda (will we ever again hear Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’?). The folksy presentation of Lord Randall is historically accurate, and the accompanying jibe about folk music in Greenwich Village gets a hearty laugh; but the song seems weak and out of tune with the surrounding jazz numbers. Pappas’ character and on-stage costume change feels clumsy and unnecessary, and does nothing to add to the fluidity of the piece.
But where it really counts, this revue truly dazzles. The instrumental and vocal expertise of the band and the singers can’t be beat. The audience claps along to gospel, sways and bops in time with the up numbers, and listens intently during the quiet moments. And if, indeed, this musical is the “Wrong Place, Right People,” it’s the best place right now to experience quality jazz which is cherished by discerning listeners.
Café Society Swing, 59E59 Theaters, 59E 59th St, New York, NY 10022, (212)279-4200 www.59e59.org
Through Jan 5, 2015
Author: Alex Webb
Director: Simon Green
Cast: Evan Pappas, Cyrille Aimee, Allan Harris,Charenee Wade; with an eight-piece jazz ensemble