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'The All Night Strut' offers new take on old music

The Oregon Cabaret Theatre’s joyous production of “The All Night Strut” opened Friday night to an enthusiastic audience. Artfully directed and choreographed by Michael Jenkinson, with four stellar performers: Anastasia Talley, Natasha Harris, Keenon Hooks, and Lucas Blair. The evening featured the music of jazz, blues, swing and be-bop, with stunning vocal harmonies, precision dancing and artful storytelling. With virtually no plot and minimal dialogue, the actors and orchestra sailed through 28 timeless songs with verve and polish.

Surrounded by the comfortable supper club atmosphere of the Oregon Cabaret Theatre, dinner music fades away. The pianist ascends the staircase to the orchestra, perched atop the multicolored Art Deco set, and we are immediately engaged.

While the shape of the production indicates the era of the music, this musical revival of “The All Night Strut” offers a more contemporary take on the popular songs of the ‘30s and ‘40s.

Conceived by Fran Charmas, the writers framed the evening as a trip down memory lane, hearkening back to a simpler time. However, the spirit and essence of the songs are actually generated out of a time — of horrific world events: poverty, uncertainty and war. The jazz and blues music plus the swing tunes of the ‘30s and ‘40s lifted the American spirit through the Great Depression, World War II, and into the ‘50s.

High energy flowed from the stage with “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” as we all got on board for an eclectic musical journey. With the exceptional charisma of the cast, we knew we were in for a treat.

Cab Callaway’s song, the 1931 story of “Minnie the Moocher,” (which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999) began with Anastasia Talley’s velveteen vocals and went on to the famous scat chorus: “Hi De Hi De Hi De Hi.”

The reflection on hard times in “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” performed by Lucas Blair, reminds one of a young day trader gone bust. With his visions of becoming a wolf of Wall Street now shattered, this young man is reduced to his own personal and lonely reckoning.

The sentimentality of love and the impact of war are reflected in: “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover” sung sweetly by Natasha Harris. The song was released not long after the Battle of Britain in 1940. Bluebirds are not indigenous nor do they migrate to England. “Bluebirds” refers to the RAF fighter pilots in their blue uniforms.

The versatility of the performers was featured throughout the evening. They hit their mark no matter in what style they performed. They were on fire, as they tapped, jived, bogeyed, fox-trotted, and waltzed to the lively music with its infectious and carefree lyrics. We see in “A Fine Romance” two young couples struggling to initiate some sexual chemistry. In stark contrast, Keenon Hooks croons — laidback, and mellow — with Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin.”

The newly available recordings, radio, film, and the big bands that traveled the countryside in the ‘30s and ‘40s, popularized American music from coast to coast; everyone heard the same songs. Their vitality united the nation, encouraging Americans to get back on their feet, pulling them out from the struggle for their very existence.

Jazz itself had a revolutionary impact on American culture: It broke down racial barriers; the new kinds of dancing unleashed excitement and physicality; it encouraged the spirit of improvisation and invention; it was alive.

It’s heartening to hear those elegant and soulful lyrics, to feel the pulse of the beat, and to be reminded of the triumph of the spirit in our current uncertain times.

“The All Night Strut” runs through June 25th at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre, First & Hargadine Streets in Ashland. For tickets and information, call the box office at: 541-488-2902, or visit: oregoncabaret.com.

Evalyn Hansen is a freelance writer based in Ashland. Reach her at evalyn_robinson@yahoo.com or visit her blog: ashlandtheater.wordpress.com.