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There's an awful lot to like about the new production by White Iris Light Opera of George and Ira Gershwin's Strike up the Band, on stage through August 25 in Meredith College's venerable Jones Auditorium. If the name sounds as if the show might be a bit dated, well, it is – it's set in 1927, and the version WILO has mounted is in fact the original incarnation, from that year, the edition that was launched in New Jersey before moving to Philadelphia, where it closed after three weeks. Yes, we get to hear virtually all of the Gershwins' first thoughts, music and words that included several of the greatest hits of Broadway, some of which (like "The Man/Girl I Love") were however actually dropped when the show was rejiggered and finally done on the Great White Way in 1930. (A few numbers were brought into this edition from the 1930 version.)
The version under discussion is a satire with a lot of biting cynicism that makes it ideal for production now. It's anti-war, which is always a good concept, but into the mix of this military invasion of Switzerland over tariffs on cheese are introduced hints of tax evasion, greed, corruption in Washington (oh, the horror of it all…) and at the factory (as management is charged with adulterating the "product" with inferior ingredients…), and cheese, lots of cheese, with odes to cheese, and with songs of praise of management that hint at the regimentation of factories in Japan several generations later. Oh, and the isolationist ends up drafted, punished with assignment to kitchen police, and then becomes the hero; and there are older folks who are only too happy to send others to fight their damned battles for them. And never mind some riffs on conscientious objection, conscription, Pentagon lunacy (although of course there was no Pentagon then – and no Dept. of Defense, either). Overlaying all this are two bunches of romance that inspire some delicious singing, some shady dealings over a rich widow (or not), and so much other stuff that one really wishes they'd kept the house lights up just enough to read the list of songs in the program so we could have kept up a tad better….
So it's really almost too much for an evening, from the standpoint of the book and the dialogue, and all this is before we get to the music. Gershwin shows, of course, are strings of great, great songs – plus duets, trios, etc., with and without choruses, often enhanced with dances of various kinds – it's not for nothing that they call these things song-and-dance routines. The formula, reduced to its essentials, is this: come up with some great tunes – there are 16 in the first version of the show, 20 in the second (with 10 more that went unused), and some clever words, toss in some neat production numbers, and string them together with just enough banter for the vocalists and the hoofers to catch their breath between sets.
Conductor and music director Jim Waddelow tended a 23-piece pit band (actually there is no pit) playing handsomely in front of the stage, on which the actors moved and sang and spoke with considerable effectiveness, only lightly amplified (with Eric Leary in charge of the sound) – one had no trouble keeping up with the plot as its twists and turns unfolded. And they danced to masterful choreography, thanks to the amazing Hannah Richman. The show was given on a basically bare stage with minimal props, but the lighting (by Jim Frick) and especially the effective period costumes (by Chelsea S. Waddelow) – and the enthusiasm of the cast – made up for a lot, and our imaginations took care of the rest. Among the crew's members were director Stacie Whitley and stage manager Sarah Kiser.
The large cast included folks from all over with all kinds of backgrounds (and one might say the same of the instrumentalists, too), making this a true town-and-gown undertaking. The principals were Aydan Hansen, Emily Spain, Ethan Maricle, Brandy DelVecchio, Elena Mulligan, Ingrid Santiago, John Paul Middlesworth, Troy Jelley, Anna Brescia, and Hannah Brown – plus soldiers, Swiss ladies, factory workers, and assorted hangers-on.
Some of the singing was truly outstanding, as was most of the choral work, and Maestro Waddelow (aka the MD of the Raleigh Symphony Orchestra) kept firm control over musical precision, balance, and flow. What he had less control over was the pace of some of the dialogue, which (as intended) interrupted the music and in some cases lowered the otherwise felicitous energy levels the show for the most part demonstrated – I'd have red-penciled some of it. Strike up the Band ran to around 10:30 PM – past the bedtime of some critics – so be forewarned. But nonetheless GO! This is an important revival of a too-rarely-heard show that is a significant item in the canon of great American musicals, so seize the opportunity. There was a time when the big boys launched our seasons here in the Triangle, when Pops in the Park signaled the resumption of art and culture after the summer doldrums. It's truly wonderful that Meredith and WILO have picked up that torch.
The repeats are August 24 and 25. See the sidebar for details.
Final note: There are many links between CVNC and Meredith. Our intern program started there ten years ago; several former interns were involved in this show. And several members of our current board are at Meredith. This review has been influenced by none of the above!