Except for a first act-closing medley of WWII standards, Fran Charnas eschews any attempt to tie together this nostalgic revue of 30 songs dating primarily from the ’30s and ’40s. It is simply a celebration of great tunes performed by a quartet of singers who have their high moments but proved inconsistent in their opening night outing at Long Beach-based International City Theatre. Director Lance Roberts remains absolutely faithful to Charnas’ original staging, keeping the ensemble active as they work their way through a more than representative sampling of big band era favorites.
With music director Daryl Archibald’s facile but undervolumed trio providing a solid if not driving instrumental foundation, the first act establishes that swing is the thing as the foursome of Joe Giuffre, Ron Christopher-Jones, Alysa S. Lobo and Melanie Wingert offer well-harmonized outings on Glenn Miller standards “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “In the Mood,” the wartime ditties “G.I. Jive” and “Shoo-Shoo Baby,” as well as a languid but funky re-creation of the Ink Spots hit “Java Jive.”
Charnas wisely keeps the choreography basic and minimal, allowing the singers to concentrate on the music. The closest thing to a production number occurs with George & Ira Gershwin’s “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” as this syncopated standard evolves into a brief hoofer routine for Giuffre, then moves on to indulge in a few alternative rhythms — cha cha, Viennese waltz, rock and rap.
One highlight of the first act is Christopher-Jones’ emotional rendition of that Depression-era anthem “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” In the second act, however, he loses contact with the accompaniment as his intonation disappears on Fats Waller’s playful “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
Giuffre’s light, reedy tenor is often buried within the ensemble, but his gentle crooning is effective on “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” During that catch-all medley “Juke Box Saturday Night,” Giuffre adroitly duplicates Harry James’ trumpet solo on “Chiriribin” and Bill Kenny’s ultrahigh tenor lead on the Ink Spots’ hit “If I Didn’t Care.”
The most swing-oriented vocalist of the four is Wingert, who simply sails through the vocal lead on “In the Mood.” She also offers a moving rendition of the wartime heartbreaker “I’ll Be Seeing You” and teams with Giuffre for a lighthearted “A Fine Romance.”
The second act opening is much more playful as the quartet offers a comically choreographed rendition of the tango ballad “I Get Ideas.” But Charnas never ventures too far from the swing era as the quartet continues with the boogie-woogie standard “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar” and Erskine Hawkins’ “Tuxedo Junction.” The final highlight of the evening is a hard-driving medley that includes an adroit “Hit That Jive, Jack,” some very sloppy scat singing on Charlie Parker’s be-bop standard “Billie’s Bounce” and an uptempo, not-too-swinging take on the Duke Ellington perennial “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.”
The production designs of Bradley Kaye (set), Tom Ruzika (lights) and Sherry Linnell (costumes) do much to create an authentic big band era atmosphere. Unfortunately, the uncredited low-level sound design proves a hindrance.