Monday, December 22, 2014

Cafe Society Swing Premieres at 59E59 Theaters

Evan Pappas in CAFE SOCIETY SWING.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.
Café Society, the first racially integrated nightclub in New York City (and possibly the first in the country), was opened by Barney Josephson in Greenwich Village in 1938 - not only to be a fully racially desegregated club, a showcase for African-American talent, and an American version of European cabarets, but also as a way to mock the pretensions of the wealthy (who were satirized in wall murals painted by some of the most prominent Greenwich Village artists of the time).  As it happened, the club also provided Josephson with a place in which he could host political events and fundraisers for left-wing organizations.  Within a decade, the club (and its sister club, Café Society Uptown, which Josephson opened on East 58th Street in 1940) launched the careers of innumerable jazz and comic superstars including Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, Big Joe Turner, Count Basie, Zero Mostel, Sid Caesar and Carol Channing.  The clubs were a roaring success, flaunting the slogan “The Wrong Place for the Right People” and they were the place where celebrities as diverse as Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Robeson and Errol Flynn might be found.  But in 1947, as the “red scare” hysteria of the late 1940’s gathered steam, it all began to fall apart.

That year, Josephson’s brother Leon was subpoenaed and found guilty of contempt when he refused to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Affairs.  Given his own record of having hosted left-wing events at his club, his staunch stand against racial segregation, and his relationship to Leon, Josephson was pilloried as a “fellow-traveler” by a number of newspaper columnists including Westbrook Pegler,  Walter Winchell, and Dorothy Kilgallen (who accused Josephson of  “operating a Moscow-line night club.”)  Within weeks, business at Café Society and Café Society Uptown was down nearly 50%, Josephson was losing money, and he had to sell both clubs.

Café Society Swing, a homage to the original Café Society, is now enjoying its US premiere at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan, a block away from the club’s original uptown location.  It was written by Alex Webb who, in addition to being the play’s creator, is also its musical director and leads the play’s terrific eight piece jazz band on the piano.

The play’s book is slight, intended only to provide a scaffolding for the delivery of nearly two dozen songs, ranging from such classics as Stormy Weather and What Is This Thing Called Love to less well-known numbers such as Stalin Wasn’t Stallin’ and Hurry On Down. The book is almost entirely the responsibility of Evan Pappas who delivers its message in several guises – as a newspaper reporter struggling to write the story that best captures Josephson’s persona with all its contradictions; as a bartender at the club itself providing us with a window into what it really was like; and, ultimately, as Josephson himself.  Pappas does a fine job with this material and (together with Cyrille Aimee) even gets to sing one of the play’s numbers, Closing Time.

L-R: Charenee Wade, Allan Harris, and Cyrille Aimee in CAFE SOCIETY SWING.  Photo by Carol Rosegg.

But the play is really all about the music, not the book, and that’s where Cyrille Aimee, Allan Harris, and Charenee Wade, three extraordinarily talented vocalists, get to shine.  Harris, who also plays the guitar in the band and ties all the music together, gets it all going with a wonderful opening rendition of Cafe Society and Rollin’ and follows up with several other great performances, including One Meat Ball, I Left My Baby, Society Jump, Lush Life and Wrong Place, Right People.   Aimee exhibits a remarkable talent with a repertoire that ranges from an all-time classic (Stormy Weather) to a French love song (Parlez Moi D’Amour) to a traditional folk song (Lord Randall) to the perkiest of pop songs, Hurry On Down.  And Wade proves that she can belt out gospel and blues with the best of them, delivering super performances of What a Little Moonlight Can Do, All of Me, Rock Me, Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues, Bad Girls Need Love Too and What Is This Thing Called Love, with the very best of her performances being the play’s concluding number, Strange Fruit - first performed by Billie Holiday at Cafe Society in 1939.