By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Sometimes I wish every Tommy’s burger joint had a small yard behind the parking lot with a couple of doomed cattle bellowing in the moonlight as the teenagers wait in line for their ground meat on a bun. At least then going to Tommy‘s would involve an authentic, perhaps even sobering reflection on the workings behind America’s remarkable ability to package, market and consume, abilities that have made us the envy of the world. And indeed, the difference between Swing! -- a ”celebration of the music and dance phenomenon that swept the nation in the ‘30s and ’40s,“ in from Broadway at the Ahmanson Theater -- and the era from which it is derived is something like the difference between a hamburger and the steer it came from. But even that comparison gives this dance-music revue more weight than is really there. Swing! is so infused with perky, predigested images, it offers not so much the texture of ground meat as the aroma that wafts across the street from the broiler. This is all calculated, presumably, to trigger nostalgia for an imaginary place and time in which grinning mixed-race couples slither through each other‘s thighs at a USO dance and nobody says boo, where Ann Hampton Callaway’s additional lyrics to ”Stompin‘ at the Savoy“ try to explain how the club helped race relations. (As for the mix’s slippery Isaac Hayes--era guitar riffs . . . don‘t ask.)
On the other hand, the plotless Swing! -- which consists entirely of medleys of compositions by Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Sy Oliver, Count Basie, Hoagy Carmichael, Johnny Mercer and others, directed and choreographed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett, supervised by Jerry Zaks, and designed to exploit the retro-chic swing craze that’s been sweeping the nation‘s club scene for a number of years now -- does, after all, get 20-somethings and their grandparents into the theater at the same time. And what could be wrong with that? How can one possibly object to two hours of first-rate Lindy-hopping, boogying, tap-dancing and scat singing by a company of vivacious vocalists and dancers dressed in zoot suits, bobby socks and saddle shoes? (The costumes were designed by William Ivey Long.) Or to an able quartet of singers like Charlie Marcus, Ann Crumb, Alan H. Green and Sarah Jane Nelson? Or to accompaniment by a great onstage band called the Gotham City Gates, conducted by Boko Suzuki and situated on a bandstandplatform that rolls to and fro beneath the triple proscenium arches of Thomas Lynch’s green-and-purple Deco frame?
The problem is that the era in question -- as opposed to the pseudo-era celebrated here -- occurred during a post-Depression, World War II climate in which we were blithely segregating and persecuting our black, Latino, Asian and indigenous fellow citizens. And although we may have cultivated a reputation for boisterous innocence, we were anything but innocent -- as noted in, say, Arthur Miller‘s plays and, later, in Thomas Pynchon’s novels. Swing!, it seems, is not really in the business of remembering but of highlighting the mythology behind the PT Cruiser aesthetic.
I know it‘s uncharitable to fault a work of unabashed entertainment for being yet another diversion in a culture of diversion. I know I’m supposed to be ”fair“ and say things like, ”If you‘re looking for a night of uplift, beautifully choreographed and soulfully sung, Swing! is for you.“ No, not this time. I may be a crank, but I’m fed up with having frothy artifice served up as an ”era.“ That‘s what Disneyland is for.
I just saw a commercial on CNN for a trucking company that shows big rigs crossing the desert to the music of Vivaldi! All these fake feel-good sounds and pictures don’t make me feel good at all, only mildly depressed by the seductive grandeur of ad images that have nothing to do with anything beyond the manipulations of the agency that dreamed them up. On CNN, that‘s merely an assault; in the theater, it feels like robbery.
Americana takes a far more muted form in Heather Woodbury’s holiday-themed one-woman show, Violet With Shades of BlueThe Lost Christmas Episode, at the Evidence Room -- a re-compilation and, in some ways, expansion (in a genre she amusingly refers to as ”endurance art“) of her epic 20-hour performance novel, The Heather Woodbury Report, which she boiled down to a 10-hour version, What Ever, performed locally two years ago.
In the evening‘s first half (”The Lost Christmas Episode“), performing on a mostly empty set with, mercifully, no sound effects (save those generated by the actor) and armed with a hand-held microphone, Woodbury inhabits several distinct stage areas in order to portray stories with dozens of characters, some of whom will eventually collide.
On a freezing Wisconsin highway, a female teenager driving a stolen truck picks up a hitchhiker, a guy perhaps a year or two older than herself, a streetwise philosopher who’s heading to NYC en route from the Pacific Northwest. Both seem to be kindly, lost-soul misfits, trying to cover their innocence with masks of knowing cool; Woodbury nails their authenticity and vulnerability both in her writing and in her extraordinarily nuanced tics of voice and gesture. When the hitchhiker defends techno-pop and the driver consequently refers to him as ”weird,“ he gently counsels her in a Tennessee Williams--like cadence: ”‘Weird’ is sloping on the antiquated side of the vernacular.“ He proposes ”fiended“ or ”rare“ instead.
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