Why don’t community theater companies do more revues? They are entertaining for audiences, fun for actors, and although permissions to use the songs are needed, they don’t carry the hefty royalties of fully-fledged musicals, which make them cost-friendly for small companies.
Bethesda Little Theater’s A Swellegant Elegant Party: An Original Musical Revue is a fine example. As conceived and directed by Laura Holmes with music direction by Jeffrey Hayes, (who also plays keyboards, along with Percussionist Stewart Williams) and a strong cast of 16, it is indeed both swell and elegant. From the glossy rose-bedecked program (by Carolyn Oxenford) to Lynn Wagner’s charming set (simply some fencing, a couple of flower-draped trellises, and tables and chairs with floral urns, it is clear on entering the theater that one is at a garden party, the kind of celebration that crops up like day lilies at this time of year.
The otherwise comprehensive program could have used some sort of Director’s Note explaining the concept and vision for the show, because the opening number, “This Could Be the Start of Something” presents a slightly confusing mix of ladies in party dresses, hats and jewels, a few men in dinner jackets (one with a T-shirt underneath) and several men inexplicably in tracksuit jackets. In the next number, the T-shirts become clearer, since they belong to caterers setting up for the garden party, one of whom explains to another that the event is the after-party for “A Musical.” (Why someone wouldn’t know what a musical is in this day and age, is not explained, but the number is good fun nonetheless).
The costume choices (by Costume Coordinator Alice Page Smyth) become clearer as the show progresses, consisting mostly of quite lovely cocktail attire and glittering jewelry for the ladies, and suits and bow ties for the gentlemen. The lighting by Bella Golladay and Elena Walter was cleanly executed and appropriate—no simple feat, since that the show was forced to change venue a week before opening. The new theater, an intimate house upstairs in the Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center in Silver Spring, works very well.
In a revue, the songs speak for themselves. A Swellegant Elegant Party almost doesn’t need the snippets of dialogue in between the numbers to try to tie them together, and the actors might have been more comfortable if they hadn’t had to say, “Well, come and tell me all about it!” and then mysteriously walk away as what had supposedly been a conversation becomes a solo song. It might have been better simply to segue from one number to the next and leave the context up to the audience’s imagination. But as the show progresses, the intervening dialogue recedes, and the songs take center stage.
And what songs they are! Although given the title of the show, I had come in expecting a collection of Cole Porter songs, the mix is extremely eclectic, with numbers from classic musicals like Dubarry Was a Lady and Holiday Inn to modern tv and film like Smash and La La Land, to rock bands like Three Dog Night and Kool & The Gang. The juxtapositions can seem startling, but the voices are so good, and the cast is obviously having such a good time, that the variety adds to the fun. One of the most interesting couplings was a mashup of the rock number “Why Can’t We Be Friends” with the classic musical ballad “Can’t We Be Friends,” sung by Vanna Della Cruz, in spectacular pop style.
Another advantage of the revue format is that everyone gets a chance to shine in a way that more plot-and-star-driven musicals don’t allow. Some of the solos that stand out even in this excellent crowd are “Stars and the Moon” by Marissa Papatola and “Life Story” by Cathy McCoskey (both women are stellar in acting and voice), and a terrific, bluesy “That’s Life,” by Arthur Glover.
The group numbers are just as delightful. All the voices are lovely, and together they are delicious. Marvelous duets included “I Know Him So Well” by Amanda Murphy and Shereth Gilson, and a super pop rendition of “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” by Vanna and Marissa. More cast members plus choreography plus expert harmony multiplies the wow factor. “Someone in the Crowd” from La La Land (staged by Stephanie Deutchman) is fresh and electric. Martin Bestimt’s elegant staging of “Well, Did You Evah,” complete with all-white costumes, is charming. Karen Fitch choreographs several fine dance numbers, including the ever-popular “If My Friends Could See Me Now,” a sassy “Let’s Be Bad” complete with flapper costumes, a nice girl-group harmony “It’s My Party,” and a rousing closing number, “It’s Not Where You Start,” complete with a tap break! The full ensemble numbers, whether the ’70s rock mashup of celebration songs that closes the first act, or the dreamy “Let’s Face the Music,” show off such glorious harmonies, such smooth professional polish and such enthusiasm that they are infectious.
A Swellegant, Elegant Party beautifully shows off what a well-done revue can do. The staging is good, the music is superb, and the harmonies are sublime. It is a lovely way to spend an evening.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
A Swellegant, Elegant Party, by Bethesda Little Theatre, plays through July 1, 2018, at The Montgomery College Cultural Arts Center – Theatre 2, 7995 Georgia Ave, Silver Spring MD 20910. Purchase tickets at the door, or go online.