“Strut’s” Got That Swing at Meadow Brook Theatre

Photo courtesy of Meadow Brook Theatre

Reviewed by Suzanne Angeo (Member, American Theatre Critics Association) and Greg Angeo (Member Emeritus, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle)

Jazzy, snazzy, be-bop and jive, “The All Night Strut!” presents the music of the Greatest Generation, those that lived through the worst depression in history and World War II.

They fought those tough times with optimism, togetherness and determination that carried them to victory. And they did it all to the rhythm of some of the best music, ever.

“Strut” features more than two dozen classics by Hoagy Carmichael, Frank Loesser, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, Cab Calloway, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins, and more. It premiered Off-Broadway in October 1979, the creation of Fran Charnas, the professor of theatre at the Boston Conservatory. Since then, it has been performed all over the US, Canada and worldwide. It has even toured with the revived Glen Miller Orchestra, a version formed several years after Miller’s death in 1944, that continues to tour the country with the Big Band sound.

Four talented song-and-dance performers strut their stuff in the cabaret-style show.

They work well as an ensemble, but each is a standout in their own way: Larissa Klinger has the just-right moves and sparkling personality; Gabrielle Lee’s powerful vocals find the heart of every song; the show’s choreographer, Christopher George Patterson, delivers any emotion from exuberant joy to deep sorrow; Jeremy Benton is a smooth, classy tenor who dances like Gene Kelly.

Best of all, they look like they’re having fun up there, and it’s contagious. The songs don’t ask anything from the audience except to hear and enjoy. But to have an understanding of what was happening in the world at the time certain songs were popular can give you goosebumps. For example, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” is the anthem of the Depression Era. It’s sung, so well, by Patterson, a “forgotten man” who worked hard and fought in the First World War in 1918. Now, in 1930, he has no job, no food, no thanks for what he did for his country. “I’ll Be Seeing You” was popular during World War II, describing the longing of loved ones separated by distance. It reflected the feelings of the soldiers, and their families and girlfriends back home, with the words “I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you.” Then there’s “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer.” ‘Nuff said.

The simple step-and-platform set by Jen Price Fick offers a nod to Art Deco and sets the mood. The cast is dressed to the nines in period costumes by Karen Kangas-Preston, dresses and gowns complete with seamed stockings for the ladies (and an occasional flash of real garter belts!) and three-piece suits and tuxes for the gents.

There’s a masterful six-piece band, under the direction of David Caldwell on piano, that includes Alex Blue on trombone, Ryan Crum on bass, John Hartwick on drums and Don Platter taking turns on sax and clarinet.

Meadow Brook’s Artistic Director Travis Walter has a deceptively easy job. There’s no plot, no structure, just tight-as-a-drum pacing and non-stop entertainment. The show’s ambitions may go no further than this, but the historical context of these songs carries incredible significance, not just for those who lived through those times, but for their children and grandchildren.

The songs tell stories. The Strut ensemble does them justice, and does them right.

The All Night Strut! Runs now through May 20. Show times are 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 6 p.m. Saturday, May 12, and 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $28 to $43.

All performances are held in Meadow Brook Theatres’ Wilson Hall, on the campus of Oakland University at 378 Meadow Brook Rd in Rochester Hills. Learn more at mbtheatre.com.

Meadow Brook Theatre’s season is supported in part by the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kresge Foundation, the Fred and Barbara Erb Family Foundation, the Shubert Foundation and the Meadow Brook Theatre Guild.