Ocean State Struts Their Stuff

strut“Ocean State Theatre Company brings quality drama”

Jefferson Boulevard in Warwick is not exactly a cultural hub, consisting mostly of corporate properties and airport lodging. But the Ocean State Theatre Company, whose new state-of-the art facility is a converted garage, is bringing quality drama to the area. Their latest production is The All Night Strut, a musical celebration of the ’30s and ’40s, featuring songs from musical greats like Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and the Gershwin brothers.

Swing music, (also known as “big band”) became popular in the 1930s and provided Americans a way to dance through the Great Depression. Using only music, The All Night Strut touches upon swing-era themes like the Depression (“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”), World War II (“GI Jive,” “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”) and women on the home front (“Rosie the Riveter”). The play first opened outside of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1975 and eventually went on to run for 18 months in Boston.

Director Brian Swasey’s smooth choreography allows the performers to move through the rapid-fire sequence of song and dance numbers naturally. The costumes, designed by Brian Horton, are accurate representations of the time period; the men sport sharp, colorful zoot suits and woman don polka-dot dresses that whirl right along with their movements.

The four-person cast, made up of Dawoyne A. Hill, Christina Rodi, Robby May and Courtney Nolan Smith, woos the audience as cats and dames strutting their stuff. Billed as “Woman” and “Man” 1 and 2, the players are more performers than characters, as the show contains no dialogue or storyline. Dawoyne A. Hill, whose non-stop energy drove the performance, was the highlight. The cast must also be given a lot of credit for their unflagging endurance; for the full two acts, they sing and dance without stopping for so much as a breath, but never show any signs of slowing down.

The music was central to the performance, and music director Paul Bueno clearly worked hard to polish the show’s 29 songs. The performers’ voices were always excellent, and many of the songs featured impressive four-part harmonies. Robby May’s booming baritone covered the low end, Courtney Nolan Smith hit the high notes with ease, and Christina Rodi’s amazing vocal embellishments wowed the audience. The a capella intro to “Operator” slowed down the pace with gentle barbershop harmonies. The playful call and response of “A Fine Romance” recalled the songs of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. And the show’s finale, “Lullaby of Broadway,” celebrates the hustle and bustle of big city living.  The accompaniment was a jazz trio consisting of musical director Paul Buono on piano, Brian Grochowski on stand up bass, and Dan Hann on drums. The All Night Strut has a remarkably comprehensive catalog and will hopefully introduce a new generation to classics like “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing)” and “Minnie the Moocher.”

The set was sparse but effective, including only four microphones and two tables (complete with whisky and gin) on each side of the stage. The band was located on the stage, which was enclosed by elegant lighting structures and anchored by a large piano background.

If you’re not big on a lot of singing and dancing, The All Night Strut may not be right for you; 90 minutes of uninterrupted pizzazz can be pretty overwhelming. But for those who want to travel back to the flashy heyday of the Swing Era, The All Night Strut is a great way to break out of the winter doldrums.

The All Night Strut will be presented at the Ocean State Theatre, located at 1245 Jefferson Boulevard, Warwick thru March 16.

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