Wednesday July 26, 06
by David Cuthbert, Times-Picayune


The fine art of performance excitement at Southern Rep

By David Cuthbert / The Times-Picayune

Theater writer

"The All Night Strut!" is a too-good-to-be-true, piping-hot musical revue at Southern Rep.

First, take 26 popular — and a couple of obscure — songs from the 1930s and '40s (plus several that pre-date those eras), representing some of our best composers and lyricists: George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington,. Mack Gordon and Harry Warren, Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser, Cab Calloway, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields and Fats Waller, to name a few. Arrange them in to-die-for, four-part harmony, add a peppery, three-piece jazz band, four exciting performers you could listen to all night, then stage it all with a maximum of stylish, evocative, humorous movement.


The result is a damn near perfect show.

The man behind the curtain is Brandt Blocker, the young, Ziegfeldian producer-director who has musicals-in-the making all over town. He is also a meticulous musical director and displays savvy showmanship in the selection of talent that populates his productions onstage and backstage.

The performers are Ashley Lemmler, the epitome of a big-band glamour girl singer with a Rita Hayworth hairdo; Tywon Morgan, a bust-out baritone with liquid moves and a Hi-Dee-Ho exuberance; Christopher Bentivegena, a solid-sender of a tenor, whose voice dips into lyric baritone territory; and Gabrielle Porter, the beguiling young belter whose voice can modulate into pure velvet and whose look-alive drive is sassy and classy.

All are onstage together constantly, taking us on trips from Bessie Smith gin joints to Broadway, the Cotton Club, Hollywood and Harlem, encompassing the Big Band era, World War II patriotic paeans, novelty numbers and lush, seductive songs. You'll swoon to the tune of your choice, hopping aboard the "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" and getting off to Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing."

The Gershwins' "Fascinating Rhythm" is a good illustration of how "The All Night Strut!" works. A tricky rhythm to begin with, it's begun in its original fast jazz tempo, switches to a waltz, a cha-cha and back to jazz.

On the solo front, Morgan electrifies with "Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?" — the working man surrounded by oblivious aristocrats. Lemmler is infectiously persuasive as she gets us "In the Mood" and breaks your heart with "I'll Be Seeing You." Porter gets down with "Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer" and later sings a poignantly straight-forward "White Cliffs of Dover." Bentivegna does right by the beautiful "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" and a more full-bodied and forceful "As Time Goes By" than we're used to hearing. Morgan and Porter lead a smooth, slinky "Java Jive," and Bentivegna offers a stirring "Comin' In on a Wing and a Prayer."

The second act begins with a funny "stepping up to the mike" radio sequence with "Juke Box Saturday Night" and then jumps around, from Morgan leading what surely must be one of the slyest declarations of affection ever, "Ain't Misbehavin." You'll also hear "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar," "Operator," "A Fine Romance," "Hit That Jive, Jack". and "Billie's'Bounce." Alton Geno's clever, continuous choreography, movement and hand jive is a polished Andrews Sisters jitterbug jamboree: truckin' on down; peckin'; all manner of swing rhythms.

The show is smartly routined to give us a relaxing "Dover" or "Dream" in between the up-and-at-'em numbers. "Dream" has the performers reclining in chairs, hands in back of their heads, singing the reverie of a lyric in leisurely fashion.

The band cuts no slack, Jack, what with Dr. Henry Jones' keyboard charisma; Kevin "Q" Estoque's drum boogie and Becky Hicks' boss bass work coalescing in fantastic fashion. When they plays 'em, they slays 'em.

David Raphel's Deco bandstand panels, with continually changing, kaleidoscopic lighting by Gary Solomon Jr.; slides that enhance the wartime segment; and Scott and Carroll Sauber's casual and posh period costumes add additional layers of enjoyment. Tighten up a few stage waits, get more light on the players' faces and the show could move to off-Broadway.

Because what they're struttin' at Southern Rep is neat, sweet and all reet.