Off-Broadway Theater Review: CAFÉ SOCIETY SWING (59E59 Theaters)

by Dmitry Zvonkov on December 21, 2014

in Theater-New York

Post image for Off-Broadway Theater Review: CAFÉ SOCIETY SWING (59E59 Theaters)

THE WORLD ON A SWING

The year is 1948 and a hack reporter (the entertaining Evan Pappas), ordered by his editor to do a hatchet job on Barney Josephson and his revolutionary Greenwich Village nightclub Café Society, struggles over his typewriter trying to find an angle. Should it be Josephson’s Commie sympathies? His club’s unheard-of integration policy, which doesn’t restrict mingling between and provides for equal treatment of whites and blacks? Should it be that he hires so many black performers? Or that he’s a subversive Eastern European Jew catering to Manhattan malcontents?

Evan Pappas in CAFE SOCIETY SWING at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg

In sharing with us his dilemma the reporter becomes our guide—later that task is transferred to a bartender, and finally to Josephson himself, all played by Pappas—providing, in a not so subtle way, historical background for Alex Webb’s Café Society Swing, which gives us a taste of the rich and remarkable world of the legendary club.

Allan Harris in CAFE SOCIETY SWING at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Although a nominal attempt is made to give the reporter a dramatic life he is ultimately little more than a device. This show is about the music. After the reporter’s introduction the lights come up on the eight-piece band; Allan Harris (who also plays guitar) steps up to the microphone, and his luscious voice enfolds us like a luxurious coat. The vocally endowed Charenee Wade, and Cyrille Aimée, whose charming coquettish delivery brings to mind a certain adolescent earnestness, take turns with Mr. Harris performing as a variety of jazz and blues legends—Billie Holliday, Lena Horne, Hazel Scott, Josh White, et al—serving up a repertoire which includes “Strange Fruit” (performed for the first time by Holliday at the club), “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “One Meatball,” “All of Me,” as well as original songs by Mr. Webb (who also plays piano and serves as musical director) done in the style of the period.

Cyrille Aimée and Evan Pappas in CAFE SOCIETY SWING at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Rather than trying to imitate these artists however, under Simon Green’s sharp direction his singers merely suggest them, much in the way the show suggests the club itself—with flashes of period costumes—a zoot suit, a straw hat—and tapestries with images mirroring those which adorned the venue (excellent set and costume design by David Woodhead). This approach frees us of the compulsion to compare and allows us to fully enjoy Mr. Webb’s cozy version of this delightful unique bygone world. And although our guides’ monologues at times get a bit too corny, and are perhaps more voluminous than need be, Mr. Pappas’s warm delivery and, more to the point, the outstanding music, make Café Society Swing a most satisfying outing.

Charenee Wade, Allan Harris and Cyrille Aimée in CAFE SOCIETY SWING at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Additional musicians: Mimi Jones (bass), Lucianna Padmore substituting for Shirazette Tinnin (drums), Camille Thurman (tenor sax), Bill Todd (alto sax and clarinet), Joe Boga substituting for Benny Benack III (trumpet), and Brent White (trombone).

Charenee Wade in CAFE SOCIETY SWING at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg

photos by Carol Rosegg

Charenee Wade in CAFE SOCIETY SWING at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol RoseggCafé Society Swing
Richard Darbourne Ltd
and The Copasetic Foundation
59E59 Theaters
Tues–Thurs at 7; Fri at 8;
Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 3 & 7
scheduled to end on January 4, 2015
for tickets, call (212) 279-4200
or visit www.59e59.org

Leave a Comment