There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
What musical rhythms can do to keep a show’s pulse alive, Matthew Sklar’s skittering, syncopated swing tunes are doing with a toe-tapping vengeance in The Rhythm Club. Though this Broadway-bound spectacleabout teen jazz babies in 1938 Hamburgis otherwise routine, with connect-the-dots plotting and characters who possess all the depth of a page of sheet music, its songs throb with life from the moment bandleader Jimmy Kingston (March Hanson) gets things off to a roaring start with “Nothing to Do but Dance.”
That roaring start is actually a bit of a problem, though it certainly sets a heady, crowd-pleasing pace for what follows. For plot purposes, this first number needs to be blander than bland even more than it needs, for audience purposes, to be rousing. Within seconds after the applause fades, The Rhythm Club’s young heroesbandleader wannabe Jake (Jeremy Kushnier) and songwriter wannabe Adam (Tim Martin Gleason)are disparaging Kingston’s music and pitching their own, hipper sound to club owner Gustav Herbert (Buzz Mauro). These two swing kids have dreams of turning boogie-woogie into their ticket to New York, and it’s clear they’re not going to let anything stand in their way.
Did I mention that storm troopers are enforcing der Führer’s ban on musical stresses placed on the second or fourth beat of 4/4 time? Well, Jake and Adam barely give it a second thought. All they crave as the show gets under way is a business manager and a songbird.
Greta (Megan Lawrence) volunteers for both gigs so she can nurse her unrequited crush on Jake, but has to settle for managing the group because Jake has set his sights on a flaxen-haired siren named Petra (Lauren Kennedy) for the job behind the mike. Petra is a classically trained soprano who has never heard of Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw, but she proves capable of shedding her rounded tones in seconds and learning to belt “That Harlem Sound” when Jake explains syncopation to her. She also, we later discover, has terrible stage fright, but not so terrible that a dram of Scotch and a flashy new dress can’t turn her into a proto-Patti Page when her big chance presents itself.
Now, it may occur to you that most of these plot threads don’t have much to do with the prewar German milieu that composer Sklar and librettist Chad Beguelin have chosen for The Rhythm Club. Presumably aware that the shadow of Cabaret is bound to hover over any musical enterprise set in 1930s Germany, the creators keep their Nazi thugs on the sidelines until they need to provide a bit of menace in the evening’s second half. To be sure, those pesky storm troopers are present in spiritinspiring adult dissonance from Petra’s collaborationist mom, Jake’s Nazi dad, and Adam’s panicked Jewish parents. Still, parental disapproval necessarily qualifies as a minor obstacle to kids who live and breathe syncopation. And what, after all, are obstacles if not song cues? So with stars in their eyesnot to mention rocks in their headsour politically oblivious young protagonists proceed down a cliché-bordered path to overnight success that has previously been trodden by everyone from Mickey ‘n’ Judy to ‘N Sync.
As in most of the musicals Eric Schaeffer has staged at Signature Theatre, there are moments of startling directorial clarity. Unfortunately, those moments mostly make you wish for plot developments original enough to need clarifying. Schaeffer’s skill at fleshing out characters who aren’t quite there on the page is precisely what the show needs, but he’s got his hands full with this lot. Right now, they’re strutting confidently, and singing and dancing up a storm, but they’re almost painfully indistinct as people.
The show is, let’s note, in its early stages as a work in progress and will presumably undergo substantial revision as it travels to Chicago, where it will acquire a Broadway-ready set to replace the brace of Kristallnacht-presaging window frames that designer Derek McLane has provided for the Washington run. Perhaps in transit, Schaeffer can help Beguelin figure out how to finesse some of the plot’s more ludicrous moments. That authorial lightning bolt that converts Petra from opera singer to swinger in midsong, for instance, would seem a lot more plausible if she first admitted to a fondness for jazz that Jake’s attentions could simply bring to the fore. Something similar could no doubt be worked up to explain how she overcomes her terror of audiences and develops practiced stage gestures most big-band divas would kill for in just a few offstage seconds.
But it’s harder to know what might be done about the authors’ tendency to raise issues, characters, and plot points in which they immediately lose interest. Adam’s father, for example, is established as a tobacconistand allowed a single ballad about his love of jazzbefore being dispatched from the proceedings entirely. We’re told he’s been taken by the Nazis, and there’s some talk of cigars and cigarettes in other scenes, but neither the character nor the smokables actually figure in the story.
Closer to the plot’s center, Jake’s supposedly sizzling prowess on the bandstand, which is enough to inspire a Nazi bigwig’s offer to help him get out of the country, is established in a fantasy number called “Every Time I Raise These Hands” and barely hinted at thereafter. Similarly, whereas early scenes emphasize the swing kids’ tendency to speak in jazzy locutions of the “What’s buzzin’, cousin?” variety (with the implication that careless phrasing might expose their enthusiasm for forbidden music to the powers that be), by intermission, everyone’s regressed to ordinary speech patterns and the threat has mysteriously disappeared.
With so much slackness in the storytelling, the actors have an uphill battle to establish their characters as more than stock figures. Still, some succeed. Experienced Broadway veterans Barbara Walsh and Florence Lacey use their not-inconsiderable gravitas to make the swing-kid moms they’re playing seem less irrelevant than they are. Lawrence manages to make lovesick but pragmatic Greta an appealing comic figure, though she can’t do much when the character is left twisting in the wind at evening’s end. Jonathan Hogan puts so much supercilious feyness into his line delivery that it briefly seems as if the Nazi music-lover he’s playing is about to confess to having a crush on Jakewhich would at least be an unexpected plot twist.
As for the central trio, they’re all firm-voiced and appealing, but they’re struggling at present to create their characters, chiefly because the authors place so much confidence in the story’s clichés that they don’t bother dramatizing relationships. Kushnier’s callow, success-minded Jake, for instance, is in love with Petra because…well, because he just is. Ditto his friendship with Adam. You have to admire Gleason and Kennedy for creating a love affair for Adam and Petra almost entirely from body language. They’re handed a sweetly soaring romantic duet before their characters have exchanged six lines suggesting that they’ve so much as noticed each other, and darned if they don’t sell the song to the rafters. It would be nice to report that thereafter, their mutual affection and willingness to deceive Jake become understandable, but they don’t really. In the absence of other information, it’s hard to escape the impression that the two become sweethearts primarily because they’re roughly the same height, whereas Jake is shorter.
None of which diminishes the appeal of Sklar’s score, which pulses and pings even as the air is going out of the show it’s working so hard to pump up. And, given what else has passed for entertainment on the Great White Way in recent years, there’s no real reason to think that The Rhythm Club is a lost cause. Schaeffer has a Broadway-worthy company and, with an assist from choreographer Jodi Moccia, he’s keeping it in fairly constant motion. Plenty of revues have eked out lengthy runs in Manhattan with less talent and energy behind them. But if there’s much on Signature’s stage that’s worth saving, there’s still much to do before that Broadway opening in January. CP