“Swinging on a Star,” is a smooth and smart revue showcasing the works of the prolific Hollywood lyricist Johnny Burke. Spanning two decades and drawing from Paramount Pictures’ musical comedies — those starring Bing Crosby in particular — the material recalls Burke’s craftsmanship as a witty wordsmith and a consummate romanticist.
Show opens in a Chicago speakeasy, with Lisa Akey vamping “Personality” and confronting a former beau (“What’s New?”). There is a smooth segue from the Roaring ’20s to the Depression years as Lewis Cleale promises down-and-outers on a Windy City street corner plenty of “Pennies From Heaven,” leading to an optimistic medley, including “I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams.”
Burke’s particular brand of zaniness is hilariously illustrated by Kathy Fitzgerald with “His Rocking Horse Ran Away,” a raucous Betty Hutton classic from the 1944 film “And the Angels Sing” in which a mother attempts to cope with a child on the rampage.
Credit director Michael Leeds for tidy transitions, leaping from the dark years, as three rejected suitors discover that “Annie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, ” to a giddy upbeat version of the same tune on a New York broadcast heralding the glory years of early radio. A patriotic segment by USO entertainers, somewhere in the Pacific, finds a shy G.I. remembering his “pug-nosed dream” back home, as Cleale returns with a plaintive “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.”
The second act journeys from a Midwestern ballroom to a Paramount soundstage in Hollywood focusing on the Crosby-Hope-Lamour “Road” movies. There’s a generous salute to the celebrated crooner who won an Oscar as the priest who introduced the Oscar-winning school lesson “Swinging on a Star” in “Going My Way.” (Crosby recorded well over one hundred of Burke’s lyrics.)
Each cast member gets a first-rate solo turn in the show’s final segment, set in a posh Manhattan supper club. Grouped together are those infectious leave-the-theater-humming ballads, mostly with music by Jimmy Van Heusen.
Alton Fitzgerald White sings Erroll Garner’s “Misty” with smoky soulfulness, Akey returns with an ardent “Like Someone in Love,” and Fitzgerald defines the torch song with “Here’s That Rainy Day,” from one of Burke’s rare Broadway scores, “Carnival in Flanders.” With “But Beautiful,” Terry Burrell brings a sultry elegance to the cabaret setting, reminding us of the long-ago simple stateliness of a good romantic song.
Forty songs are woven into this effervescent catalog, laced with some limited but well-placed choreography and beautifully framed in Deborah Jasien’s varied scenic designs. Her colorful locales keenly evoke a sense of time and place, and an added asset is the placement of a dozen ringside tables where a handful of patrons experience a cabaret ambience.
Judy Dearing’s costumes, too, define each decade with an awareness of time and terrain. Director Leeds has found a slick way to probe the pages of a forgotten song book, and there is certain to be an Off Broadway nest in the not too distant future for Burke’s comforting legacy.
–Robert L. Daniels