‘Cafe Society Swing’ pays tribute to long-lost jazz hot spot
It may not be as famous as Harlem’s Cotton Club, but Cafe Society made its mark on the New York jazz scene of the 1930s and ’40s — not least because, unlike its uptown rival, whites and blacks mixed freely there.
The Sheridan Square joint’s slogan was “the wrong place for the right people.” And the people onstage were very, very right: Billie Holiday opened the club in 1938 and became a regular, joined by the likes of Lena Horne and Count Basie.
Now the revue “Cafe Society Swing” aims to reintroduce the nightspot with songs associated with its most famous performers.
Those are big shoes to fill.
Charenee Wade in “Cafe Society Swing.”Photo: Carol Rosegg
Of the three vocal leads, Allan Harris and Charenee Wade, veterans both, are perfectly fine, if a bit bland. More interesting is slinky Cyrille Aimée, a young singer who’s still in the intriguing process of finding herself.
Aimée was trying way too hard in “A Bed and a Chair,” last year’s misguided attempt to jazzify Stephen Sondheim. But she doesn’t have to shoehorn swing into the material here — it’s already there — so she’s a lot more relaxed and often quite wonderful, as on her smoky “Stormy Weather.”
She even gets to perform in her native French on “Parlez-Moi d’Amour” — the signature song of gallic import Lucienne Boyer, whom Cafe Society owner Barney Josephson booked after Josephine Baker proved too expensive.
This is just one of the anecdotes in Alex Webb’s disorganized, lumbering book. In the first half, Evan Pappas plays a journalist writing about Josephson, a left-wing shoe salesman turned music impresario. In Act 2, Pappas has suddenly turned into a wisecracking bartender.
No matter: All these scenes are just a clumsy way to tie together the songs. Happily, Webb — who’s also the show’s music director and pianist — does a much better job leading the supple seven-piece band. When the beat gets going, the brass instruments shine and the singers are in the zone, it’s easy enough to push the awkwardness aside and bask in the music.