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Jitterbugs “Swing!” on the Carnegie Stage

Review by Jack Crumley of “Swing!”: The Carnegie

The Carnegie is pulling out all the stops for its final show of the 2018-2019 season with a  production of “Swing!”, a musical that ran on Broadway from late 1999 to early 2001. It’s more of a revue, showcasing the popular music and dance style that came out of Harlem just before World War II. “Swing!” was originally conceived by Paul Kelly with original direction and choreography by Lynne Taylor-Corbett. Even though it was only on the Great White Way for a short time, it was nominated for multiple Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Choreography, and Best Orchestrations, and now it’s playing in Northern Kentucky for the next couple weeks.

The tone is set as soon as the curtain opens, and we see the RL Little Big Band right there on stage. The band is excellent. Even in the most melodically advanced musicals, the band is there generally in the service of the singing actors. In this show, the band is just as much a character as anyone else on stage. Band Leader Randy Linville commands the drums, Phillip Bowden plucks an enormous upright bass, Jeff Folkens’ trumpet sizzles. The band killed it Sunday afternoon. Easily the best instrumental performance I’ve ever seen in a stage production.

Not to be outdone, Director and Choreographer Tracey Bonner has assembled an exceptionally talented cast. All of the actors dance in the show, and some are featured as singers as well. Let’s start with the singers: R DeAndre Smith (who I saw about this time last year in “Motherhood Out Loud”) kicks off the show belting out the classic “It Don’t Mean a Thing, if it Ain’t got that Swing,” introducing the dancers who will be Lindy hopping all over the stage for the next two hours.

After that, featured singer Bethany Xan Jeffery takes the stage for “Bounce Me Brother with a Solid Four.” Jeffery radiates a confidence that makes taking your eyes off of her nearly impossible. She’s so present in every song, and when you hear her sing, you’ll understand why her resume includes national and international tours of “Kinky Boots”, and roles in stage productions of “Sister Act”, “The Addams Family”, and “The Little Mermaid”. She and R DeAndre Smith have really fun chemistry in “Bli Blip,” where they play a couple on a first date, but they mostly communicate in scat singing. And Jeffery absolutely brought the house down with her Act II number “Blues in the Night.” Talent must run in the family, as her mother, Xan Waddell Jeffery, is the music director for this show.

Rounding out the featured singers are real-life married couple Sarah Viola and Dave Wilson (who played Marian and Harold in the Carnegie’s 2017 production of “The Music Man”). Wilson handles a mainly supporting role in this show, both in song and dance, but Viola’s beautiful, operatic voice is on full display. You’d think that might not be the best fit for a jazzy production like this, but it’s perfect for her intro number, “Two and Four,” about a proper, somewhat repressed woman learning to love that big band swing. The two have a romantic moment on stage with “Love You Tonight,” about a man and woman who meet during wartime.

Singing with Viola in “Two and Four” is John Woll, who is the only actor credited as both featured dancer and singer. And both of those talents are most prominent in the all-guy performance of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” which has more of a slow jam, R&B vibe to it.

Then there’s the dancers. These five talented people fill every inch of the Carnegie’s relatively small stage space with rock steps, chicken walks, Texas Tommys, and all the lifting/jumping gymnastic moves you’d expect to see in a 1940s dance hall. Dance Captain Trase Millburn leads the way with a grace that I’m not used to seeing on such a tall man. I’m sure I’m not the first person to compare Millburn to Tommy Tune, but it’s praise. He has a great tap solo in “Swing it, Brother, Swing,” which kicks off Act II.

Collin Newton was performing at the Carnegie a couple months ago in the adaptation of Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. As one of the Featured Dancers, he’s in a variety of songs this time around, but he gets to play a nerdy newbie in “Kitchen Mechanic’s Night Out,” where he cuts loose on a date with one of the women dancers played by Grace Vetter. Vetter is a freshman at Northern Kentucky University, and she brings a youthful exuberance to the stage. She also vamps it up in a sultry dance number as the band plays “Harlem Nocturne.”

The other two women dancers not only wow the audience with nonstop energy, fast feet, and acrobatic jumps, but they do it all with thousand-watt smiles on their faces. Franchesca Montazemi and Renee Stoltzfus are strikingly talented dancers, and even when they’re doing little character interactions off to the side or in the background, they’re committed to the characters they’re playing. Montazemi has a sweet performance with Trase Millburn called “Dancers in Love.” My only complaint about Stoltzfus is that I wish she was in the show more.

The show comes to a head with a dance competition segment where dancers bring members of the audience on stage and a winning couple is decided by audience applause. That leads to Bethany Xan Jeffery having one last, big song with “Stompin’ at The Savoy,” which also featured one of the quickest cast costume changes I’ve ever seen. Then it’s the big finale and curtain call that brought audience members to their feet.

“Swing!” is an energetic, snappy production that’s worthy of the musical genre it’s celebrating. The cast, the choreography, the band, Cat Schmeal-Swope’s solid costume design, all of it makes for a really excellent show that’s appropriate for all ages.

“Swing!” plays at the Carnegie Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through April 14. Tickets are available here.