By Mary Boyle
Audiences today may believe they have no connection to the pop music of the first half of the 20th Century, but the brilliance of musicians such as the Gershwin brothers, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington have become a hidden soundtrack to our lives, popping up in the background of films and commercials, and continuing to contribute to the backbone of American culture. This is the music of the Roaring 20's and the Great Depression, bookended by World War I and II, when Jazz, in all its variations, transformed the musical landscape in America, and some of the very best of it is showcased by some of the very best performers around in The All Night Strut! at The Rep's newly remodeled Stackner Cabaret through January 13th in downtown Milwaukee.
Anyone who saw Ain't Misbehavin' at The Rep four years ago will appreciate The All Night Strut! While Ain't Misbehavin' focused specifically on the music of Fats Waller, the two shows are alike in that they both feature five, triple-threat performers (some are even quadruple-threat — they sing, dance, act, and play instruments), and that's not the only similarity: Dan Kazemi, who does the music direction for Strut, was the director of Ain't Misbehavin'; and, the talented Bethany Thomas, who was one of the performers in Ain't Misbehavin', is sister to Katherine Thomas, who makes her Rep debut in Strut. In fact, Waller's song, "Ain't Misbehavin'," made the playlist for Strut.
Conceived and originally directed and choreographed by Fran Charnas, The All Night Strut! is a tour de force of talent. The Stackner Cabaret is transformed into an Art Deco train car, with Jonathan Spivey acting as Conductor (a Conductor who sings, as well as playing piano and trombone, really well). Milwaukee favorite, Kelley Faulkner (who was seen last season in Always...Patsy Cline and Guys & Dolls) looks and sounds like she stepped out of the big band era, anyway, but her vocal, dance and even drum-playing skills are on full display in this production. Brian Russell Carey and Nygel D. Robinson both make their Rep debut and, between the two of them, they play the stand-up bass, trumpet, guitar, drums, violin, and piano. Though Katherine Thomas also makes her Rep debut, her resemblance in both looks and vocal talent to her sister, Bethany, who has made herself familiar on The Rep stage and opened the Stackner's season with Songs for Nobodies, makes Katherine seem familiar, as well.
Songs like "Chattanooga Choo Choo" and "It Doesn't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" are easily recognizable, even by their titles, but I believe younger audience members will be surprised how many of these songs, from a time long before they were born, are familiar; nonetheless, it's the sheer level of energy and talent from the performers that really make this show a hit. I wish I could say that the new Stackner Cabaret is better than ever, but change is always difficult. Though there are many more seats, and they've made much better use of the space, the harsh new lighting and stark modern decor are greatly lacking in the character and warmth that the old space had, and that loss is tangible. Still, the small tables, close quarters, and the ability to get a drink, snack, or dessert while you enjoy the show continues to make the Stackner Cabaret an intimate and unique theatre experience.
The All Night Strut! runs through January 13th at the Stackner Cabaret, located within the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex at 108 E. Wells St. in Milwaukee. Tickets can be purchased by calling (414) 224-9490, in-person at the Box Office, or online at www.MilwaukeeRep.com.
About Milwaukee Repertory Theater
The Milwaukee Rep is the largest performing arts organization in Wisconsin, in terms of audiences served, and one of the largest professional theaters in the country. Each year, The Rep welcomes up to 275,000 people at nearly 700 performances of 15 productions, ranging from compelling dramas, powerful classics, new plays, and full-scale musicals in its three unique performance venues: the Quadracci Powerhouse, Stiemke Studio, and Stackner Cabaret. Now in its 65th Season, The Rep has gained a national reputation as an incubator of new work, an agent of community change, and a forward-thinking provider of .vital arts education programs. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Mark Clements and Executive Director Chad Bauman, Milwaukee Repertory Theater ignites positive change in the cultural, social, and economic vitality of its community by creating world-class theater experiences that entertain, provoke, and inspire meaningful dialogue among an audience representative of Milwaukee's rich diversity.