Friday, July 4, 2008

‘Swinging on a Star’ falls short in 21st century

Published in The News Tribune, July 4, 2008

The season finale at Paradise Theatre in Gig Harbor is “Swinging on a Star,” a musical tribute to Johnny Burke. Burke was one of America’s favorite songwriters beginning in the 1920s and going well into the 1950s. Most famous, perhaps, for his collaboration with Jimmy Van Heusen and for writing the songs for the many Bing Crosby and Bob Hope “Road” pictures, Burke is known for such songs as “Pennies from Heaven,” “Moonlight Becomes You,” and “Misty” – as well as for silly novelty songs the likes of “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe” and the old Fats Waller hit “You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew.”

This show runs well over two hours. I really enjoyed 20 to 30 minutes of it, but the rest I found to be either too maudlin or too silly. Burke wrote some wonderful songs, but a lot of what may have been considered terrific in the first half of the 20th century has since lost its appeal. Some of his more romantic numbers are overly sentimental, and the skits these songs are woven around are like corny bits from 1950s television variety shows. “Don’t Let That Moon Get Away,” the song that opens Act Two, for instance, features some really bad dancing – intentionally bad, I might add, with a lot of stumbling and falling down. It wasn’t funny; it was juvenile. Similarly, there was a long scene with parodies of Crosby and Hope movies with six songs and a reprise of the first one that was like a “Saturday Night Live” skit gone bad.

On the upside, the cast is good overall and a couple of them, Krista Curry and Carrie Nelson, are outstanding in certain numbers. But Adam Randolph, whom I have thoroughly enjoyed in performances at Encore! Theatre and Capital Playhouse, was not at his best opening night. Although his singing was nice, his acting was stiff and histrionic. It was as if he were doing a parody of a bad ham actor, and perhaps he was in the “Road” movie skits, but if that was the case it didn’t work in other numbers.

The show is cleverly arranged to represent different ages of Johnny Burke music. The first scene is in a 1920s speakeasy. It opens with Nelson in a sexy dress doing a Mae West-type come-on to “You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew” followed by Randolph and K. James Koop mimicking trumpet players in the upbeat and jazzy “Chicago Style,” while Curry and Stacee Cramer tap dance in hot red flapper dresses. (Throughout the show these two hoofers show off some impressive tap skills, as does Koop on a couple of songs.)

Overall, this 1920s scene lacks verve and excitement. Things pick up in the next scene, a Depression-era street scene, when George Ngo solos on one of Burke’s most beloved tunes, “Pennies from Heaven.” Ngo sings it in a subdued manner and with heartfelt expression. This may be the best song in the show.

Things pick up even more in the next two acts, which are similar. The third act is presented in the form of a 1940s radio show and is very similar in style and humor to the stage play “1940s Radio Hour,” which, coincidentally, both Randolph and Nelson have appeared in. And the third act is based on a USO show during World War II. These acts are more lighthearted and have a nostalgic pull that the first two acts lack, perhaps because few people today remember the 1920s and ’30s but many have fond memories of the ’40s. One of the hottest numbers in the show comes in the USO portion when Nelson solos on the sultry blues “There’s Always the Blues.” Then Randolph (as a soldier) pops out of the audience to sing a very sweet rendition of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” and the whole cast swings on the title tune, “Swinging on a Star.”

Act Two starts with a lush ballroom scene and the aforementioned fall-down dancing, followed by the “Road” film scenes and a swank supper club in the ’50s.

Sets and lighting are minimal and sufficiently set the various scenes. Likewise the costumes go a long way toward setting the scenes. The best touch in costuming can be seen in the numerous wigs the women wear, which really nail some of the period styles. Betty Boyd (props) and Vicki Richards (director and costume design) deserve credit for creating the various period looks.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Paradise Theatre, 9911 Burnham Drive N.W., Gig Harbor

TICKETS: $20 adults, $17 seniors, $10 students 25 and younger, group discounts

INFORMATION: 253-851-7529,

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