The carefree enjoyment of swing music amid the horrors of Nazi oppression provides the contrasting tableau of “The Rhythm Club,” a dark but engaging new musical by Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar making its world premiere at the Signature Theater. Some adjustments to a problematic book currently top a short list of fixes needed to pave the proposed route to Broadway.
The musical focuses on a strange circumstance in history. When swing was being invented by the likes of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw during the 1930s, German youths were among those captivated by the infectious new genre. But the Nazi government forbade such unofficial music, forcing the new subculture underground. The kids hid it from their parents and the nightclubs hid from the government, which levied punishment on club owners and their patrons. The story follows a trio of youths who pursue their musical careers against all odds.
One challenge is to tell this story with grace and sensitivity without trivializing one of history’s most tragic episodes. For the most part the show is successful, especially in one dynamic scene in which the band plays and dancers whirl while windows are breaking in the streets of Hamburg.
A powerful opening number is typical of what Washingtonians have come to expect from director Eric Schaeffer (in this production aided by choreographer Jodi Moccia). So is a delightful skit in the first act when the story’s talented ingenue (Lauren Kennedy) takes her first turn at the microphone. The decidedly darker act two disrupts this picture of teenage naivete with heavy doses of ugly reality, but it’s enlivened by energetic and inventive dancing. Sklar’s music is a nice blend of swing styles and tempos that ring true to the era — and capitalize on a recent resurgent interest in swing.
Beguelin’s book is intriguing but uneven as it concentrates on a tale of teenage infatuation. There are some witless and trite moments, especially as it contrives an innocent love triangle amid the encroaching chaos and religious hatreds. More successful is the subplot depicting how parents dealt with the musical interests of their children — one a persecuted Jewish merchant, another an ardent supporter of the Nazi movement and the third a terrified wife whose husband was taken by the police for passing leaflets. The situation is handled sensitively in the tender duet “They Taught Me Well.”
The cast includes Jeremy Kushnier (“Footloose”) and Tim Martin Gleason as the two musicians. They both earnestly tackle their assignments. Joined with Kennedy and others, they fully capture the show’s flavor in “That Harlem Sound” and “Hello New York.” Kennedy’s clarion voice is given an ample workout, particularly in “You Can’t Buy Me Love.” Other standouts include Megan Lawrence as the spunky manager, Larry Cahn as a caring father and Jonathan Hogan as the bad guy.
Derek McLane’s simple but effective scenery captures the dreariness of the locale, while Jonathan Blandin’s shadowy lighting is first-rate. As always, Signature’s tiny space spoils its audiences, since future productions won’t offer such an intimate experience. The show is scheduled to hit Chicago before arriving on Broadway in February.