The cabaret roars to life with the all-star decade of the 1930s and a nod to the legendary bandleaders. By the end, the audience is bouncing to Lou Bega.
In Swing! Swing! Swing!, the newest installment of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's cabaret series, creator and director Claude McNeal doesn't give audiences a chance to make the usual complaint about swing music. It's the gripe critics and aficionados have made since Brian Setzer and his Stray Cats thought they would revive the genre by adulterating it with rock 'n' roll, the music that displaced swing to begin with. The new stuff, so they say, is a bad imitation. A Frankenstein's monster. And the swing craze that Lindy-hopped its way through the '90s? Bah-humbug.
Instead, McNeal takes the high road, stays gingerly out of the debate, and wins over even the purists in this smiley-faced tribute to the music's survival. The show ranks among his best cabarets, which include the popular Hollywood Nights and Decades.
It opens with an old man reminiscing about his time as a master of ceremonies. His memory comes roaring back to life in a sort of swing's "greatest hits." The golden age of swing, the all-star decade of the 1930s, starts off the first act, nodding to legendary bandleaders like Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Count Basie. The second act traces the music's postwar evolution from singers like Billie Holiday to modern bands like the Cherry Poppin' Daddies.
Many of the usual Center Theater Company actors appear in the show. They maintained a strong energy level throughout Thursday's performance, despite the challenge of keeping up with John Vincent Leggio's choreography. On a few occasions, Leggio, who also plays the lead, was left panting from his own moves. Given his graceful showmanship, the audience was sympathetic.
The center's dynamic duo, Quentin Darrington and Kissy Simmons, were at their best, turning in memorable singing impersonations of Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. The ensemble is complete with Eric Davis, Cassie Shoemaker, and Julie-Anne Taylor.
McNeal strikes a nice balance between paying homage to the dance fad (with its lingo and neon zoot suits), and showcasing the music and its evolution. Swing's biggest impact was the rise of star musicians blasting out improvised solos, an innovation that edged right into rock 'n' roll.
Right when you think too much attention is on the singing and dancing, musical director Stan Collins leads his excellent seven-piece band through Duke Ellington's Take the A Train, complete with solos. If anything is lacking, it's the opportunity for these musicians to show off a bit more, or even better, imitate greats like Gene Krupa or Art Tatum.
There is enough of everything in Swing! Swing! Swing! to tide over swing lovers, young and old. Lots of dance and music. A little history. Plenty of costume changes. And talented performers. We almost forget that there is a raging debate about neo-swing. People who came in bouncing to Louis Armstrong leave dancing to Lou Bega. And that seems to make McNeal's point.