There once was a Gary Larson cartoon showing a tuxedoed orchestra conductor, baton in hand, being led to his eternal chamber in Hades by Satan himself. Through the slightly open door, you see rows of musicians waiting for him, sitting in front of their sheet music and each holding . . . a banjo. If that is hell for a classical-music maestro, then we have just identified hell for a Who's Who of mid-20th-century pop-song composers, and it is The All Night Strut, at the Actors' Summit. In fact, if you happen to be outside one evening this weekend, you may hear a faint whirring sound. That would be those songwriters, spinning in their graves like horizontal figure skaters, at having their melodic works unmercifully assaulted and battered by this Hudson-based troupe.
Strut is a great compendium of 1930s and '40s pop favorites, assembled by Clevelander Fran Charnas for an original production at the old Pickle Bill's eatery in the Flats. Since its original presentation some 30 years ago, the show has been revived many times with great success in various locales, but it's probably safe to say that it has never been produced with so little talent or charm as this current effort displays. This is odd, since the Actors' Summit group is a thriving outfit -- being one of the few smaller professional theaters that is finishing its scheduled season intact. They are to be saluted for that -- if for little else, at this particular time.
It would seem perverse, on the face of it, to cast four vocally challenged, movement-inhibited individuals in a show composed exclusively of swing-era singing and dancing. But there you have it. Instead of the precisely intricate harmonic blends of The Manhattan Transfer, the ensemble crooning in this Strut is confused and tentative. And the solos are generally worse. With all the talent in the Northeast Ohio area, the imponderable question is: Why this cast?
The often overanimated Frank Jackman would be a fine comic lead in a traditional musical, but his workmanlike baritone has neither the range nor depth this show requires. He presents the Depression-era "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" with plenty of surface anger, but without the desperation and bone-deep disappointment that makes the song so affecting. In other numbers, Jackman tries to liven up the proceedings with goofy gesticulations and bathroom-mirror mugging.
Anne Marie Pinto looks as if she stepped out of a 1940s photo, with her pulled-back hairstyle and full red lips. But she is disastrously off-key in virtually every one of her numbers, slipping from sharps to flats while occasionally landing on a correct note along the way. In the wonderful gospel hymn "Operator" (written by Clevelander William Spivery), she defeats the infectious, rhythmic bounce of the tune with a determinedly uninspired vocal interpretation.
The third member of this atonal Gang of Four is Charles D. Martin II, a stout and stolid fellow with a whispery thin tenor that was barely audible above the threadbare three-piece combo. His bumbling vivisection of the lovely "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" is nothing short of felonious.
Director MaryJo Alexander proves how difficult it is to double as a performer, since she manages to botch both. Her fragile, reedy singing voice has no luster, and she is unceremoniously thrown to the curb by the up-tempo "In the Mood." On the directorial side, Alexander's blocking consists almost entirely of having the cast troop up and down three stairs that bisect the two-level stage. Given the number of step-aerobics trips the actors are assigned, it's understandable that they occasionally forget whether they're going up the down staircase or vice versa. Whenever possible, Alexander seems intent on substituting slapstick for wit. In Cab Calloway's epic "Minnie the Moocher," the performers turn the cool, scat-sung "hidey hies" into a finger-waving, eye-rolling parody more appropriate to a Trent Lott sing-along. And the clever romantic byplay in the Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields ditty "A Fine Romance" is staged with all the sly subtlety of a roller-derby grudge match.
One major indication of a problem is that there is no credited musical director for this production. (Unless there was one, who had a nervous breakdown during rehearsals and is now being fed through a straw at the Hudson Home for the Terminally Disappointed.) When the members of this apparently unguided quartet aren't bungling their basic harmonies, they just settle for singing the melody line, which instantly turns pop into pap.
There's a lyric in the memorable Johnny Mercer tune "Dream" (also mauled in this show) that optimistically opines, "Things never really are as bad as they seem." Well, now and then things are precisely that bad. Sorry, Johnny. You'll stop spinning soon.