Written by Alex Webb and directed by Simon Green, the two-hour show attempts to bring to life Cafe Society, the legendary jazz club that launched the careers of Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Big Joe Turner, Count Basie, Zero Mostel, Sid Caesar and Carol Channing. As the first racially integrated club in New York City (and possibly the United States), it was considered "the wrong place for the right people.” It couldn’t, however, survive the Red Scare of the late 1940s.
All of this would have made Cafe Society Swing a good play, but it’s not a play. It’s a revue, with the club’s history told through narration by Evan Pappas stationed on the right. In the first act he is a reporter investigating the suspected Communist ties of Barney Josephson, the venue’s owner who once described his goal as creating “a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front.”
Woven between his accounts, the show’s marvelous singers, Cyrille Aimée (in photo), Allan Harris, Charenee Wade and Pappas, sing the hits made famous by Horne and the like. It’s Dec. 15, 1948, the nightspot’s 10th birthday, and the reporter’s editor wants an attack story, but the more the reporter investigates, the more he is charmed by the club.
When Pappas reappears in the second act dressed as a bartender and working at the club, I laughed because I figured he had lost his reporting job. It took a few minutes for me to realize he was supposed to be a different person. That was a large part of the problem — he wasn’t developed enough to be a character in a play, because this isn’t a play, it’s a revue. To me he was more of a distraction, a narrator giving facts that I would have been much happier to have read in the program. I wanted to get back to the songs, which are wonderfully brought to life by the singers and the eight-piece jazz ensemble onstage.
Even without the singers I could have been happy with just the band — Joe Boga (trumpet), singer Harris doubling on guitar, Mimi Jones (bass), Lucianna Padmore (drums) Camille Thurman (tenor sax), Bill Todd (alto sax and clarinet), writer and musical director Webb on piano and Brent White (trombone).
Many of the songs are well-known, such as “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “All of Me,” “Stormy Weather,” “Where or When” and “Lush Life.” Others, like “Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’” and “Red Scare,” point to the club’s political slant. I thought of my mother when Aimée sang “Hurry On Down” as Nellie Lutcher. My mother loved Lutcher’s “Fine Brown Frame” and used to put nickel after nickel in jukeboxes to hear it back in her youth. Lutcher’s name hasn’t survived as well as that of Holiday, Vaughan and Horne, so it was nice to have her included. My mother would have been happy!
One of the notable songs, “Strange Fruit,” about lynched black men hanging from trees in the South and made famous by Holiday, was first sung at Cafe Society. Oddly, this song closes the show. While it is powerfully sung by Wade, it is a real downer for sending an audience out of the theatre after a musical afternoon. When Wade finished and the cast came back on stage, I expected an encore of something more upbeat, but no, they took their curtain calls and that was it.
Was this meant to be some kind of statement about the current day killings of black men by white police officers? If so, it is out of place, tacked on like that at the end. I was talking with a fellow critic at the E Bar after the show and he also questioned this ending.
The director, British singer Simon Green, is known to me for his cabaret shows at 59E59, with just himself and an accompanist. These engagements have charmed me over holiday seasons past with his lively themes — “Coward at Christmas,” “Traveling Light” and “So, This Then is Life,” each smoothly integrating songs with his recitals of writers on the subjects. That integration is missing in his directing efforts of Cafe Society Swing, which continues through Jan. 4 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., between Park and Madison Avenues).
Ease up on the narration and let the music carry the show, which it easily can. Then Cafe Society will really swing again.