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A CurtainUp Review
Café Society Swing

I conceived the idea of presenting some sort of satire and alternating it with jazz music. Barney Josephson, owner of Café Society It was designed to subvert the cultural and social norms of the time. It wasn't a jazz club, it wasn't a dance hall, it wasn't the kind of swanky club where there was no entertainment at all.
— David Stowe, historian.
Cafe Society
L-R: Charenee Wade, Allan Harris and Cyrille Aimé (Photo by Carol Rosegg)
It was called, "the wrong place for the right people," but no doubt about it, Café Society was a prime New York hot spot in the 1930's and '40's. A nexus of musicians played with snap and sizzle. Singers were the best around, Lena Horne, Josh White, Hazel White, Billie Holiday. Satirists and comics included Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford. In the audience the elite would meet, Paul Robeson, Errol Flynn and Duke Ellington rubbing elbows with Eleanor Roosevelt and Lauren Bacall. Café Society represented a hopeful moment when, for the first time in this country, black and white artists performed for integrated audiences.

The man behind this innovative nightclub was Barney Josephson, a shoe salesman from New Jersey. He took a page from European nightclubs, where he saw the races intermingling on stage and in the audience— musicians, satirists, comics performing in an integrated space with talent the necessary ingredient. As the son of Jewish parents from Latvia, Josephson had faced bias against him as well. He opened Café Society in Greenwich Village in 1938. Café Society Uptown opened the next year and its mixed milieu was a highpoint for civil rights.

The doors closed 11 years later during one of this country's lowest points, The House Un-American Committee investigations and the "Red Scare." Jacobson's being a supporter of human rights and the brother of an admitted communist was enough to bring down Café Society.

At 59East59 Theaters writer Alex Webb revisits the high-spirited jazz era of the nightclub with eight dynamic instrumentalists and four singers, one of whom serves as quasi-narrator. Here is where the show runs into a problem. Barney Jacobson's story is relevant but Webb's book is unfocused with its story told in various guises and varying time sequences.

Evan Pappas is, however an engaging actor and singer. He takes on three roles, first a newspaper journalist digging for dirt on Josephson, a chatty bartender and then Josephson. He also fills in for some group vocals .

The banquet of dynamic instrumentals and vocal renditions attributed to some of the club's famous performers is a treat. It's too bad that the tale of the man behind the landmark club is hazy and fails to gel fluidly and with enough depth to make this a full musical and too much talk to make it a concert.

Directed by Simon Green on a Deco-styled jazzy stage there are examples of the styles of the day. This includes satire and the social protest of Josh White. Singer Charenee Wade presents Lena Horne's hit, "Stormy Weather," with the cool smooth girl band singer style popular back in the 1940s. (This version was markedly different from the angry passion Horne gave the song four decades later in her Broadway show, A Lady and Her Music. ). She recalls the blues of Queen Ida Cox and Sister Rosetta Tharpe's powerful gospel but her musical high point is the dignified rendition of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" that closes the show.

There is evidence of Billie Holiday's familiar laid-back, behind-the-beat style in Cyrille Aimé's, "What a Little Moonlight Can Do" and "All of Me." Aimé's crowd-pleaser, however, is a big band bouncy Nellie Lutcher hit tune of the day, "Hurry On Down." Benny Benack leaves his trumpet for the microphone to deliver Josh White's social protest with "One Meatball." Singers join for some tunes like "Stalin Isn't Stallin.'" As part of the versatile, Allen Harris puts down his guitar and dons a hat to open the show with two original songs by playwright/musician Alex Webb. Later, his rich burgundy wine tone delves into a memorable Billy Strayhorn jazz classic "Lush Life."

Set and costume designer David Woodhead provides an ambiance of the day, with Harris' jazzman hat, stylish gowns for the women, with a series of panels showing the famous satirical cartoons that poked fun at the upscale society in the city.

Café Society Swing is fun to hear and see, offering vibrant music and dynamic performers. However, if you did not know much about Barney Jacobson before, you won't learn much more here.
Café Society Swing 
Book, lyrics, music: Alex Webb
Directed by Simon Green
Cast: Evan Pappas, Cyrille Aimé, Allan Harris and Charenee Wade
Jazz Ensemble: Alex Webb (piano), Mimi Jones (bass), Shirazette Tinnin (drums), Allan Harris (guitar), Camille Thurman (tenor sax), Bill Todd (alto sax and clarinet), Benny Benack III (trumpet), Brent White (trombone).
Music Director: Alex Webb
Set Design: David Woodhead
Costumes: David Woodhead
Lighting: Maruti Evans
Sound: Leon Rothenberg
Running Time: One hour, 55 minutes. One intermission
59 E. 59th Street'Theater  
Tickets: Starting $90-$110 orchestra. $25 mezzanine and balcony.
Performances: Tues-Thu. at 7pm; Fri at 8pm, Sat. at 2pm and 8pm, Sun at 3pm and 7pm. Dec. 24 ar 2pm and 6pm. Dec. 31 at 6pm. No performance Dec. 25.
Opens: 12/21/14. Closes: 01/04/15.
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 12/17/14.
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Cafe Society/Rollin'/ Allan Harris
  • What a Little Moonlight Can Do/All of Me / CyrilleAimé
  • Stormy Weather/Where or When / Charanee Wade
  • Rock Me/ Wild Women Don't Get the Blue / Wade
  • One Meat Ball / Musician/Singer
  • Rockin' Chair/ Wade
  • Stalin Wasn't Stallin'/ Vocalists
  • Closing Time / Aimé
  • I Left My Baby/ Harris
  • Society Jump / Harris
Act Two
  • Wrong Place, Right People / Harris and Band
  • Parlez Moi D'Amour / Aimé
  • Bad Girls Need to Love / Wade
  • Lord Randall / Aimé
  • Red Scare / Vocalists
  • What Is This Thing Called Love / Wade
  • Lush Life / Harris
  • Too Hot for Words / Wade
  • The Investigator's Song / Pappas
  • Hurry On Down / Aimé
  • Strange Fruit / Wade
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