Ballast From the Past

In the days when radio was king, Americans seemed as united in spirit as at any point in their history. True, much of what was broadcast was merely sweet-sounding, thinly veiled propaganda (FDR's Fireside Chats, for instance, weren't much more than feel-good campaign messages). But the big-band music that came over the airwaves helped define an entire generation, serving as a guiding force through difficult and heady times.

Which is why it comes as something of a surprise that those legendary lyrical sounds have been "updated" in The All Night Strut!, a touring musical revue currently on stage at the Arvada Center. This energetic collection of swing, jazz, pop and blues songs of yesteryear has been given a modern set of orchestrations to suit the presumed tastes of both younger audience members hearing the songs for the first time and older patrons reliving their memories of the classic tunes. And while the producers' intent is certainly commendable, their efforts unfortunately result in a production that more closely resembles a sophisticated lounge show or cruise-ship offering than it does a faithful retrospective of the songs.

That much having been said, Strut remains a highly entertaining evening, owing mostly to the talents of a jazzy three-piece band (pianist Ed Wells, drummer Keith Ewer on drums and bassist Michael Fitzmaurice) and four expert performers (Lori Flynn, Michael Richard Kelly, Rachel Oliver and Lance Roberts, who also directs the show). The production's upbeat songs, such as "Chattanooga Choo Choo," "In the Mood" and "Java Jive" get your toes tapping. But when it comes to the more serious-minded ballads--"Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," "White Cliffs of Dover"--this antiseptic, slicked-up production has more style than it does substance.

Part of the problem lies with the show's creator, Fran Charnas, who barely scratches the surface with her sugary approach to songs that are arguably more heartrending and patriotic than anything in the American musical canon. Based on her treatment of swing music, one wonders whether Charnas would consider a Margaret Bourke-White Life magazine photo essay as being the artistic equivalent of an amateur's album of casual snapshots. After all, photographic technology is better these days; why not simply take an automatic camera, point it at the Chrysler Building and call the finished product a modern version of a timeless classic?

To their credit, the gifted performers in Strut! are committed to showing their audience a good time (at a recent performance, some audience members accorded the quartet a standing ovation). But theatergoers looking for a heartwarming trip down memory lane might be better served by grabbing a stack of wax and spinning their own version of pre- and post-war America's vibrant musical life.


The All Night Strut!, through May 3 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 431-3939.