LANCASTER, Pennsylvania – In late summer, some may be looking for a short excursion not too far from home. One such place is Pennsylvania Dutch Country, the home of the Amish – a religious minority who have kept to the old ways of dressing and farming, and who originally came from the Palatinate region of […]
LANCASTER, Pennsylvania – In late summer, some may be looking for a short excursion not too far from home. One such place is Pennsylvania Dutch Country, the home of the Amish – a religious minority who have kept to the old ways of dressing and farming, and who originally came from the Palatinate region of Germany (they are really “Deutsch,” not “Dutch”).
Other than seeing horse-drawn buggies, old-fashioned national costumes, and quaint farms in beautiful rolling landscapes, what else might draw one to visit the Lancaster County region of Pennsylvania? The answer may be found in the current production of “Swing!,” a Broadway musical from the late 1990’s swing revival, now playing through September 15 at the Dutch Apple Dinner Theater in Lancaster.
The show transports us to the Savoy Ballroom of Harlem in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, the heart of the Swing era.
The show is a tapestry of this extraordinary period in American musical history in which jazz was the centerpiece of popular music. We are taken through dances such as the lindy hop and the jitterbug, charts of the big bands of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, and Benny Goodman, straight through a salute to the USO during the World War II Years.
Art Deco geometrics frame the stage. This is all at a dinner theatre which alludes to Pennsylvania Dutch Country everywhere, including a gift shop with Amish souvenirs, and a dinner theater meal topped off with local-specialty desserts: shoofly pie, black forest cake, and – of course – Dutch apple pie.
As we indulge in a slice of shoofly pie, a delicious Pennsylvania Dutch concoction of molasses and brown sugar, the show begins with a rollicking rendition of, appropriately, “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” sung by the dazzling Matravius Avent, who will energetically carry many a song this evening. A talented troupe of dancers called “The Swingers” appears, adding to the feeling of being in the big band days of the 1940’s. Swing-revival pieces – songs not penned in the Swing Era proper, but are in a similar style – include “Throw that Girl Around,” giving the show a slightly edgy tweak as dancers push the dance format to its limits, including full body flips.
Soon the talented Allison Fund gives lovely yet powerful renditions of Swing standards such as “Skylark” and “Cry Me a River,” followed by Jennifer Elizabeth Smith’s haunting rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You,” evoking a time when soldiers went off to war, uncertain of when – if ever—loved ones would be seen again.
Now enjoying a piece of all-American Dutch Apple Pie, we participate in a salute to the USO, the United Service Organizations which entertained soldiers during the war years. “G.I. Jive” is a key number here, with Kalie Kaimann, Danielle Poznanovic, and again Allison Fund deftly channeling the Andrews Sisters, a trio beloved during the World War II years, providing a moving tribute to the US military, both past and present. The set ends with cast and band in full swing with that Glenn Miller anthem of the era, “In the Mood.”
After the intermission, and as I sample Black Forest Cake, the show moves from song and dance to focus more on the instrumental pieces of the era. The band provides outstanding performances of “Harlem Nocturne,” the theme of the noir Mike Hammer detective show of the 1980’s and 1990’s, features a wailing saxophone by Ryan Kauffman and one of the few solo dances of the show, performed by Svetlana Khoruzhina as a slinky and sultry femme fatale. Bassist Dave Warfel steps in front of the bandstand dressed a la TV’s Mike Hammer in mustache and fedora. “Caravan” is played Duke Ellington fashion with a twist: J.P. Meyer, the conductor, performs a solo on piano effectively evoking the honky-tonk style of an earlier era of jazz, to remind us that jazz did not come into existence with Swing, but has a more extended pedigree.
Sometimes a show succeeds partly because of what has been omitted. Director and choreographer Amy Marie McCleary wisely chose to leave out “Take Me Back to Tulsa” and “Boogie-Woogie Country,” country and western-style songs in the original production which run counter to the musical flavor of the rest of the show. Indeed, my only quibble with the production is the use of large computer screens on either side of the bandstand showing advertisements and sheet music of the period, mixed with black-and-white stills of the Dutch Apple cast. While occasionally helpful, the screens sometimes detract from the beauty of the Art Deco stage design and the live band and dancers on stage by reminding us of the technology of our current era.
The last few years have not been kind to the Swing years, affording fewer and fewer opportunities to hear this vivid and vital American music performed live or on the radio; for example, Rob Bamberger’s “Hot Jazz Saturday Night” recently left the WAMU airwaves after running for some 38 years. Readers are thus encouraged to enjoy this wonderful opportunity to see the Dutch Apple Dinner Theater production of “Swing!” while simultaneously enjoying a day in beautiful Pennsylvania Dutch Country.