SWING, a musical with book by Conn Fleming, music by Robert Waldman and lyrics by Alfred Uhry; scenic design by Robin Wagner; costumes by Patricia Zipprodt; lighting by Richard Pilbrow; orchestrations by Eddie Sauter; musical director and dance arrangements by Peter Howard; vocal arrangements by Elise Bretton; choreographed by Kenneth Rinker; directed by Stuart Ostrow.
With Raymond Baker, Paul Binotto, Paul Bogaey, Roy Brocksmith, Jerry Colker, Janet Eilber, Rebecca Gilchrist, John Hammil, Robert Lupone, Pat Lysinger, Deborah Malone, Ellen March, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Adam Redfield, M. W. Reid, Debbie Shapiro, William Thomas Jr., David Wilson and Mary Catherine Wright.
At the Kennedy Center Opera House through March 30.
Can an era file a lawsuit?
If so, the Swing Era ought to consider a libel action against the new musical that opened at the Kennedy Center last night. Although I did not have the pleasure of being alive between the years 1937 and 1945, I am confident that they must have been more interesting than "Swing's" account of them.
Producer-director Stuart Ostrow, in a program note, says he expects the audience to feel that "the most heroic and romantic period in modern times" has ended as "Swing's" final curtain, the most perceptible feeling, despite lingering gratitude for a few rousing musical numbers, was that a fatuous and misbegotten musical had ended none too soon.
"Swing," you must understand, is a Metaphor Musical. The Big Band -- and there is a splendid one performing on the Opera House stage -- is a "dream machine" reflecting the dreams of a time that ends forever with V-J Day. For eight years, split down the middle by Pearl Harbor (and intermission), the band moves from city to city and gig to gig, while the same group of couples plays out the ups and downs of their romances. Like the band itself, the people who dance to it are constantly shifting from harmony to solo and back again.
This roster of lovers includes a budding politician, a budding movie star, a United Auto Workers official, a baseball pitcher with miliaria rubra (a skin disease that frustrates his efforts to join the Marines), a sailor, a coat-check boy and several singers and musicians attached to the band. It is hard to remember these people from one scene to the next. Caring about them is out of the question.
But there is a lot of talent lurking in this production, aching for another opening of another show.
A disproportionate share of the talent belongs to a singer named Debbie Shapiro. She has an Ethel Merman-sized voice, which is a nice size for a voice, and -- unlike the show -- a nice reminder of the period. She can also sing small and everything in between.
Robert Waldman's music is another asset. With the help of Eddie Sauter's superior orchestrations, Waldman has managed to write what seems like a convincing approximation of big band music. He has also written tunes with subtlety and originality.
Lyricist Alfred Uhry faced a tougher challenge. He had to write songs that not only would fit the period mold but would comment, obliquely or directly, on the story. The results sometimes sacrifice both goals in the effort to pursue them simultaneously.
The dance numbers choreographed by Kenneth Rinker are sleek and energetic. And there are fine dancers among the principals as well as the ensemble. Janet Eilber has a particularly eye-opening dance called "If You Can't Trot, Don't Get Hot," that carries her from one end of the bandstand to the other. When it is over, however, her boyfriend only wants to talk about the future of their relationship.
"You insist on being serious?" she asks him.
"Yes, I do." he replies.
She might be speaking for the audience. He might be speaking for the show.