Playing until March 3rd at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts Stumptown Stages has attempted to fashion itself an easy-going evening of swing dancing music and fun with its Club Morocco, complete with a dance/supper club, dancers, crooners, full swing band and a comic gangland trifle. If you go just for the dancing and music (and there’s even many opportunities for strutting your swing dance stuff on the dance floor with the cast), it’s a fun, if somewhat lightweight, fluffy affair. The question is, given the surplus of aficionados in swing music and dance in the Portland Area, should it suffice with a case of, “is that all there is?”
The script, planted somewhere in a nebulous time frame of 1930s/40s urban swingland, is just a sugar-icing frame on which to hang excuses for a lot of well-executed dance numbers and crooning. It’s long, obvious and silly build-up (and this is where I normally should be declaring SPOILERS alerts to you, but with writing this cliché, it isn’t all that necessary) to a show-down between gangster club owner Torch Tangier (Randy Patterson) and well-worn gumshoe archetype, Frank McCann (Jon Pleuard), where the latter lost his “swing” after being wounded previously by Tangier — very akin to the Austin Powers losing his “Mojo” comic device. Pleuard’s McCann handles the classically stilted B-Movie-serial style dialogue with the right sort of dry delivery, as do most of the cast with these American movie stereotypes. Some of it, due to the trite tone, can wear pretty quick — jokes like translating band leader Chick Valentine’s (Amber Cobb III) “jive speak” wore thin after about three times (didn’t we see Leave It To Beaver’s Barbara Billingsly do this in Airplane?). It’s transparent that characters & plot here are vehicles to just get us to the next enjoyable music number.
If you go just for the music and dance, this is certainly an enjoyable production to which you could bring your date or the whole family. The question the production unknowingly raises is, however — why only that, given the amount of current local culture around swing available for it to draw from? The work of local groups like Swing Time PDX and burlesque revival performances by Wanderlust Circus, and those like Russell Bruner and Noah Mickens in them, has given Portland its own thriving swing culture already. Their proliferation, and classic swing music groups like the Pete Kreb’s Trio, the Stolen Sweets, Swing Papillion, Pete Petersen, etc., offer more than enough venues for viewing or participating in swing dancing around the area, at many diverse clubs like Mississippi Studios, the Wonder Ballroom, The Secret Society, Lola’s Room, Duff’s Garage, the Press Club and even, at times, in Pioneer Square. Wanderlust Circus & Swing Time’s A Night At The Moulin Rouge, reviewed on this site, also showed how the same genre can be far more immediate and vibrant. The missed opportunity of cross-pollinating with this readily available local culture in the show leaves it feeling well-executed but stilted, more like a frivolous Disney theme park version of the style.
Not that it’s not a pleasant evening, and the company performs serviceable to well. Stephen Alexander’s very lively swing band, with Cobb’s Chick as the Zoot Suited period leader, are worth the price of admission alone. The whole theater is done up like a dance club, and as mentioned, the audience can have their own fun during designated dances with their turn to swing with the cast — there’s even a dance contest. Joy Martin’s torch singer Nugget had a nice, laid-back, early Lana Turner/Lauren Bacall quality, though a bit too languid at times. My money for the evening was on Julianne Johnson-Weiss as the hearty and silver-throated Velvet — her rendition “As Time Goes By” had the audience not just carrying the flame, but melting like butter in her palm, a show-stoppingly brilliant performance. More of that for the evening, please. In fact, I wondered why she didn’t do the more appropriate Lena Horne “Stormy Weather,” much more well-suited for her character and range than Martin’s Nugget.
This is a good show for family, just not much kick to it, save for some of the dancers. The performers and band do good service to mediocre material and if you can get past the wafer-thin script, and like to dance, it’s an enjoyable evening.
Stumptown Stages presents Club Morocco at Portland Center for the Performing Arts, Brunish Hall, February 23rd — March 3rd, 2012. Conceived, Creted and Written by Jon Huffman & Barbara F. Cullen, Musical Arrangements by Ashton Wolf, Directed by Tobias Andersen, Musical Direction by Stephen Alexander, Choreography by Christopher Moll. Featuring Jon Pleuard, Corey Brunish, Randy Patterson, Amber Cobb III, Julianne R. Johnson-Weiss, Joy Martin, Lauren Brown, Sydney Weir, Briana Peters, Jeremy Sloan, Joey Klei and Matthew Barnett. Orchestra: Stephen Alexander (Musical Director), Mitch Saint Germain, Anthony Percival, Stephanie Shea, Tyler Nelson, Patrick Harry & Bob Shotola. Tickets $22.25 – $29.25, depending on date of performance, student tickets $14.25 all performances.