Strike Up the Band's opening in 1927 represented a significant advance in the evolution of the American musical. Unlike the farcical revues of the period that purposely avoided any semblance of plot, George and Ira Gershwin fully integrated their songs into a satiric, albeit mostly screwball, narrative written by the esteemed humorist George S. Kaufman.
Despite the impressive pedigree, the madcap antics and mildly subversive subtext held little appeal for the audience of the day and its initial run in Philadelphia was woefully short-lived. A significant revision, with a different song list and softened political content, made its Broadway debut in 1930 and was ultimately a commercial success.
Perhaps the original version would have been a hit if a company as skilled as 42nd Street Moon had produced it. Their trademark brisk pacing, wonderful staging, and palpable elation never fail to bring a silly grin to one’s face. And they have an uncanny ability to enliven vintage material with a relevance and immediacy that belies its age.
Horace J. Fletcher, owner of the Fletcher Cheese Company, is resolute in his belief that what’s good for his business is good for America. So, when the Swiss government threatens his bottom line by imposing a tariff on cheese imports, he convinces our nation’s leaders to declare war on Switzerland. To sweeten the deal, he agrees to bankroll the cost of “another war to end all wars" and share the profits!
Gabriel Grilli portrays the corporate mogul with a steadfast conviction leavened by an undeniable charm that keeps his preening self-importance from becoming too off-putting. The dramatic baritone possesses a resonant vocal timbre, and he recites the snappy dialogue and one-liners with alacrity-as does the entire cast.
Jim Townsend is a newspaper reporter who wears his principles on his sleeve and is a bit of a wet blanket. Of course, that doesn’t keep him from misusing the power of the pen to gain the attention of Fletcher’s daughter. Michael Scott Wells plays the romantic lead fairly straight, and what he lacks in charisma he makes up for with his versatility and mellifluous singing.
Samantha Bruce, as Joan Fletcher, is the object of the smitten journalist’s desire. A clarion-voiced soprano, her impassioned rendition of the torch standard “The Man I Love”, in a duet with Wells, is by itself worth the price of admission. Her comic timing is impeccable, and her physical attributes suit the many exquisite '20s flapper gowns she’s asked to wear. Scarlett Kellum’s superb period costume design could not have looked any better!
Excellent supporting turns are provided by Sharon Rietkerk (Anne Draper) and Luke Chapman (Timothy Harper), whose duets together showcase their complementary dulcet tones and the whimsical, fluid choreography by the inimitable Alex Hsu.
The statuesque Rietkerk exudes a disarming sassiness and a magnetic, starlike presence. She’s a walking, talking double entendre and one can’t keep one’s eyes off her! And Chapman shines, too, as he leads most of the troupe in a tap-dancing extravaganza performed to the rhythm of “Strike up the Band”. The energy on stage was so infectious that the opening night crowd spontaneously clapped to the beat of the rousing tune. It was a real show-stopper ending to the first act!
Act two has a similar moment of affecting intensity, where out of nowhere a secondary player, Benjamin Pither (Pvt. McNally), accompanied by a small ensemble, belts out a richly harmonic “Homeward Bound” with immense virtuosity and pathos. It’s one of many highlights throughout the show, but its solemn tone seemed out-of-place in the somewhat disjointed, less successful second act.
This wonderful production once again demonstrates the depth of talent and creativity that one has come to expect when visiting the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco. And special recognition must go to reedman Nick Di Scala, and musical director/pianist Dave Dobrusky, who did the most they could with an overture and score that demand a full orchestra. Bravo!