The Great Depression sure had a great soundtrack. That’s one take-away from the debut of a new “jukebox musical” named The Hot New Deal, now through February 25th at Glenelg Country School.
Carole Graham Lehan’s original book is a celebration of America’s musical melting pot, and its playlist is filled to bursting with all manner of public domain treasures. We get to sample folk and blues, ragtime and Tin Pan Alley, and listen again to the influence of musicians as diverse as John Phillip Sousa and Louis Armstrong.
While character and dialogue are kept on the thin side, the play and its student cast manage to convey the optimism of youth as it might have looked and sounded in one Indiana county that sultry summer of 1933. The most oft-repeated line of dialogue here is, “I like that!”
The Hot New Deal focuses on a tight community of young sons and daughters pursuing their shared love of music. With no money for instruments, they practice their band arrangements singing a cappella. As they swarm a lattice-covered platform they evoke memories of fireflies and band shells and picnic oilcloths spread on gently sloping knolls.
A traveling troubadour nicknamed Big Dog shares with the kids some of the musical knowledge he picked up in the Deep South. Suddenly the park is alive with rhythms imported from Africa and New Orleans, thanks to the swinging sounds of Sammy Miller and the Congregation.
The kids are encouraged to take their act to the upcoming World’s Fair, but how will they get there in the midst of a depression? Other townspeople drift through, offering a sort of oral history of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs.
With all that and more going on, The Hot New Deal can seem more like a civic pageant than a work of drama. But it’s a fun civic pageant in the hands of its likable young cast.
Miranda Solomon is naturally believable as the troupe’s gung-ho conductor, Mary Howard. She gives a warm reprise of the old Broadway standard, “Look For the Silver Lining,” with nice support from Emma Smith as LC.
Lanky Brendan DeBonis, who played Ko-Ko in Hot Mikado here a couple of seasons back, is also a good fit as the charismatic but laid-back wandering minstrel, Big Dog. DeBonis’s renditions of “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” and “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” accompanying himself on guitar, are two of the musical highlights in Act I.
The entire cast displays vocal precision and dexterity in the variety of numbers, though two soloists stand out. Simity Jalloh as Katy steps casually into a rendition of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” then proceeds to absolutely slam it home to the crowd like a seasoned pro. Ms Jalloh also stopped the show at Glenelg as Pish-Tush in Hot Mikado. Watch out world!
Amy Akinrebiyo as Margaret provides strong harmonic support on “St. Louis Blues,” then brings down the house in Act II with a masterful performance of the Jazz Age ditty, “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.”
The live contribution of the New York based 6-piece jazz band Sammy Miller and the Congregation cannot be overstated. Starting out understated at first, the ensemble bursts into an on-stage presence and even strays out into the auditorium at one point, Dixieland-style.
Original musicals require a rare combination of ambition and foolhardiness, especially on the grassroots level of a high school. So much credit should be given to Glenelg’s performing arts program and its chair, Carole Lehan, for again challenging the boundaries of student musical theater. Fellow Cappies of Baltimore competitors, you have a high bar to beat!
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
The Hot New Deal plays through Saturday, February 25, 2017, in the Glenelg Country School’s Mulitz Theater — 12793 Folly Quarter Road, in Ellicott City, MD. For tickets, call (410) 531-5775, or purchase them online.
Razzle Dazzle Radio interview with Sammy Miller and the Congregation by Carolyn Kelemen.