Luke Chapman as Timothy Harper strikes up the band with the help of Sharon Rietkerk as Anne Draper in 42nd Street Moon’s production of Strike Up the Band by George and Ira Gershwin. Below: American cheese mogul Horace Fletcher (Gabriel Grilli) and the “destitute-around-the-edges” society matron Grace Draper (Stephanie Rhoads) trill the Gershwin classic “I’ve Got a Crush on You.” Photos by www.DavidAllenStudio.com
I’ve seen a lot of 42nd Street Moon shows over the years, but I’ve rarely seen one as exuberant, funny, beautifully sung and as hugely enjoyable as Strike Up the Band. Everything about Zack Thomas Wilde’s production is top notch, from the extraordinarily sharp book by George S. Kaufman and the immediately appealing score by George and Ira Gershwin to the terrific cast and the gorgeous late ’20s costumes (by Scarlett Kellum).
42nd Street Moon is less in the business of presenting musty, dusty lost musicals and more in the realm of offering polished if modestly produced professional productions.
And this Band benefits tremendously from the smaller scale. More attention is focused on the satirical book (the original 1927 Kaufman script, not the Morrie Ryskind rewrite from 1930) and on the Gershwins’ songs (especially on Ira’s incisively wonderful lyrics).
Without the proverbial cast of thousands, we get a clearer look at just what a gem Strike Up the Band really is, and its snarky attitude about how it’s commerce – not politics or even morality – that get us into war couldn’t be more timely. Alas.
And it’s all so sublimely cheesy – literally. Kaufman’s book takes us to Fletecher’s American Cheese factory, purveyor of the finest cheeses in the nation – perhaps the world. A new tariff on foreign cheese pleases Horace J. Fletcher (Gabriel Grilli) mightily. But the folks in Switzerland are balking. They’ve sent a note of grave concern to Washington decrying the tariff. What’s worse, their note arrived postage due.
The only patriotic choice to protect cheese interests is, of course, going to war with Switzerland. Fletcher is happy to pay for the war and sell seats to the battles.
Mixed in with the curds and warfare are three love stories. We have the righteous reporter (Michael Scott Wells) exchanging goo-goo eyes with Fletcher’s daughter, Joan (Samantha Bruce). Then there’s the factory foreman (Luke Chapman) and his infatuation with a flapper (Sharon Rietkerk). And then there are the older folks, the destitute society matron (Moon co-founder Stephanie Rhoads) and Fletcher himself.
Just to make sure the satirical war story didn’t overwhelm the lovers, the Gershwins gave them songs like “The Man I Love,” “Soon,” “Meadow Serenade,” “Hanging Around with You” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You.”
Not to take anything away from the wonderful men in the cast, but the women in this cast are something special. With soaring, gorgeous voices and spot-on comic timing, the ladies in the Band steal the show. I’d happily listen to Rhoads, Rietkerk and Bruce sing just about anything.
That said, Grilli’s straight-man performance as the none-too-bright Fletcher is laugh-out-loud funny – he rings his secretary at one point and says, “Please send in an assortment of singers,” and Benjamin Pither’s lead solo on the astonishing song “Homeward Bound” is the closest the show comes to tugging the heart strings.
Oh, that score. Part Gilbert and Sullivan, part Sondheim but all Gershwin, this sophisticated score plays with the conventions of the day but makes them fresh and funny and full of substance. The title song is one of those irresistible and unshakable ear worms, but check this lyric: “We’re in a bigger, better war/For your patriotic pastime./We don’t know what we’re fighting for –/But we didn’t know the last time!” Ouch.
Dave Dobrusky provides solid musical direction and some gorgeous piano with tremendous assistance from Nick Di Scala on woodwinds. It’s hard to strike up a band without an actual band, but Dobrusky and Di Scala leave you wanting for nothing.
Even the choreography by Alex Hsu has exactly the right sense of humor. The squatting and bouncing of “The Unofficial Spokesman” provides hilarious accompaniment to a government man’s (Eric Wenburg) nonsensical no-position position. And the tap-dancing during the title number at the end of Act 1 is – very much like this show itself – the definition of crowd pleasing.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
42nd Street Moon’s Strike Up the Band continues through April 24 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $24-$44. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org for information.