If the late-summer blues, or just the mind-numbing present, have you yearning to escape into yesteryear into breezy musical nostalgia, Portland Stage and Maine Stage Music Theatre have your ticket. For their second summertime collaboration on PSC’s mainstage, they present The All Night Strut, a concert production of hits from the 1920s through the 1950s, performed by four singers and a three-piece band. There’s no story to distract from the tunes. There’s barely even any dialogue. Just singing and swinging. It may well be all you need for the evening.
Dressed in turquoise and peach, and later in evening wear, the ensemble — Curt Dale Clark, Missy Dowse, Bryant Martin, and Esther Stilwell — performs on a set of multiple prosceniums, wings, and underlit levels. The stageis tinged in dusky nightclub purples, haloed with little lightbulbs, and lit upstage with footlights, and the band — Kinnon Church on bass and Jacob Forbes on the drums, directed by Edward Reichert on piano — is right up there with the singers, swinging deftly through decades of styles.
Both performers and production designers change up the style vigorously as they move through the set list. From the bright, wholesome mood, precise articulation, and happily square train gags of “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” the lights dim, the shadows turn long and snaky, and the ensemble slinks and vamps into the opening strains of Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” — complete with wily, sinuously delivered scat and refrain.
It’s fun to settle into truly great and sui generis songs like “Minnie,” and the show includes a few others that have such patent singularity of voice and composition. Martin’s performance of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” — a perfect song if ever there was one — is arrestingly restrained, with long moments of silence, a poignant arc, and real feeling in the anguish where it lands.
Other numbers are gleefully hammy. Martin and Dowse act out efforts in a Latin dance competition in “I Get Ideas,” farcing around and dancing badly on purpose; and in “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar” — a tune about a mad good piano player — the ensemble comes around with small model pianos for audience members to lay hands upon. Then there’s the slow, mysteriously sensual delivery of “Java Jive,” with the performer’s wide, knowing eyes and crypto-blissed-out coffee-pot gestures. (Is this song really just about coffee?)
The foursome delivers great harmonies, cuts it up nicely onstage, and brings a range of styles to its singing personae. Dowse is vivacious, nimble and high-energy; while Stilwell has great soul and a casual, expressive sensuality, lending feeling and narrative meaning to her numbers. As for the guys, Martin, the younger man, brings suave charisma, while Clark’s more workmanlike presence tends toward the jovially hammy. Gregg Carville’s lighting design helps pace them through their shifts in style and character, dimming and brightening becomingly apace the mood and dynamics.
The All Night Strut is an affectionately performed stroll through the American songbook, staged by PSC and MSMT with simple stagecraft, lovely harmonies, and ample high spirits. The show is a welcome reminder that the nation has produced some beautiful popular art, even — and especially — in times of trial.
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