Have yourself a swingin' little Christmas

By John Quinn

The store displays have been up since Halloween, but I'm just now getting into the holiday spirit. "The All Night Strut Holiday Show," now on stage at The Gem Theatre, is partially responsible. That can't be attributed to nostalgia; this revue is not the music of my youth. I, like most of the opening night audience, am at least a generation too young. Could its appeal lie in the fact it's a joyous, seasonal celebration of some of the best popular music America has to offer?

It's been a little over 20 years since the unprecedented relocation of The Gem Theatre, and the first offering in the restored venue was 1991's "The All Night Strut!" The revue is a salute to the music of the '30s and '40s, when composers took the playful rhythms of ragtime and doubled the beat - "eight to the bar," Daddy! That and close harmony orchestrations produced the multi-textured, sophisticated styling of "swing."

For this revival, Gary Thompson has recreated author Fran Charnas's work. Act I is a selection of the best numbers of "The All Night Strut!" that carries the audience through the Depression, World War II and the post war boom. Act II is "A Strut! Christmas Concert," featuring some old standbys and a few new twists.

The four performers are Lianne Marie Dobbs, Marja Harmon, Jared Joseph and Denis Lambert. The singers are pitch-perfect and easily handle the complexities in the score, whether singing solo or in harmony. If the choreography isn't served up with the same authority as the vocals, just consider dancing as window dressing for the "haute couture" music.

There are some real standouts among the numbers, especially a first act medley of World War II songs in which Johnny Mercer's boogie-woogie "GI Jive" morphs into the wistful "I'll Be Home for Christmas," one of the most evocative seasonal songs ever. Also of note are the unexpected comic possibilities in "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" as the quartet moves through musical genres, baroque to swing to doo-wop to rhythm and blues.

There were many hands and ears at work in the musical arrangement, but bottom line, those guys have a syncopation fascination. One familiar with the Glenn Miller Orchestra's rendition of Joe Garland's big band icon "In the Mood" might be surprised just how good it sounds played by a jazz trio. The song is great, natch, but serious credit is due to the talents of percussionist Rob Emanuel, Ralphe Armstrong on bass and musical director Sven Anderson tickling the ivories. It may be cliche, but there's never a dull moment.

"The All Night Strut Holiday Show" has all the class of a Macy's window display at Christmas. What better way to have a "Kool Yule?"

REVIEW:

'The All Night Strut Holiday Show'

The Gem Theatre, 333 Madison St., Detroit. Wednesday-Sunday through Dec. 31, plus Dec. 26-28; no shows Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. $20-45. 313-963-9800. http://www.gemtheatre.com

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