by Aidan McGinty/ Staff Reporter
Throughout the past few weeks, the musical theater majors of Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts has been preparing to open their first show of 2020: “American Songbook ‘Swinging on a Star: The Music of Jimmy Van Heusen.’”
The show is a collection of jazz classics from the early 20th century, performed through a series of solos, duets and a few large-ensemble group numbers. The majority of the show is the performers standing and singing in one place, with small dance breaks sprinkled throughout. There is no surefire “Great American Songbook” — it isn’t just one classic script, but more of a genre of music and a way to group similar songs together. This specific performance focused on the work of Jimmy Van Heusen, one of the most acclaimed American composers of the ’40s and ’50s.
Opening with the titular upbeat group number “Swinging on a Star,” the spotlight shined on the faces of eager CCPA students, gripping the audience’s attention with brassy vocals and bright smiles. But the show quickly switched up the mood with a subdued emotional solo that began the show’s more emotional series of numbers, the first of which being a slow nostalgic rendition of the classic, “Come Fly With Me.”
“American Songbook” kept me smiling for the majority of its runtime, with its off-the-cuff jokes cleverly tucked in between musical numbers, audience interaction and outlandish songs. As if the storyline was written to always keep the audience on their toes, I never fully knew what to expect next. Actors like Tristin Thomas and Jackson Mikkelsen added in funny little quips throughout the performance in order to bring the audience into the action and encouraged its participation in the show.
The cast really emphasized the phrase “strength in numbers,” as the strongest points of the show were the large-ensemble performances. When the entirety of the cast broke into song, I was immediately transported to the golden age of jazz, with up-beat tempos, tongue-in-cheek lyrics and bright smiles. The choreography (while often uninspired) was performed with accuracy and whimsy, always building a fun environment on stage, even though at times it felt like the cast was trying to compensate for the repetitive and somewhat lackluster choreography.
Despite the lack of gripping choreography, there were more than a few strong dance moments that were breathtaking to watch and very obviously well-rehearsed. They were few and far between, so they were always a welcome surprise, spicing up the climax of a number, and inciting some “oohs” and “ahhs” from the audience.
In terms of storyline, there were times when the show began to drag. After seeing a few similar melancholic, emotional solos in a row, they began to blend together, making it difficult to hold my attention. While this was sometimes hard to look past, the inconsistency in the show’s pacing was not enough to change my overall experience.
My personal standouts included, “Personality,” “Pocketful Of Miracles,” “Call Me Irresponsible,” “Fancy Meeting You Here,” “The Road Movies Medley,” “All The Way,” “Ring-a-Ding-Ding,” and the grand finale, “My Kind of Town (Chicago Is).”
The aspect of the show that was most impactful and apparent was the amount of love and trust amongst the cast members. Each performer held a charming presence on stage, and the pride each member appeared to feel while their peers had their moment in the spotlight was genuine, and endearing to watch as a member of the audience.
In the end, “American Songbook ‘Swinging on a Star: The Music of Jimmy Van Heusen,’” was an absolute pleasure to watch. I left the theater smiling for hours, and now anxiously await the next production from CCPA’s musical theater class of 2023.
Categories: Arts & Entertainment