They've got Rhythm.
Jeremy Kushnier, Lauren Kennedy and newcomer Tim Martin Gleason swung their way through five numbers from the new Broadway bound musical, The Rhythm Club, at the New 42nd Street Studios Aug. 23. Rhythm Club is two weeks away from its first preview at Washington, DC's Signature Theatre, where the Chad Beguelin-Matthew Sklar show runs Sept. 5-Oct. 22.
And that stop, seen as an audience-attended workshop by lyricist Beguelin, is just the beginning. Chicago's Ford Center for the Performing Arts Center, Oriental Theatre will follow Dec. 9-Jan. 7, and then, Broadway. The Rhythm Club expects to begin previews Jan. 26 and then open Feb. 15 at a Jujamcyn Theatre to be announced.
But back to the Signature. That theatre's artistic director Eric Schaeffer (Putting It Together, The Witches of Eastwick) is directing the swing-themed show. Schaeffer signed on to the project after hearing three songs from the score and stressed the attractions of the show.
"Here is a new book musical -- and there are not many book musicals out there these days -- and a really young songwriting team. One of the things that also attracted me is the storyline. It's great story. And what it does is the story provides two worlds -- the youthful kids with all this energy and excitement; and the world of reality with the adults, the whole Hamburg situation in 1938. Both of those two worlds colliding has made for a fantastic story and I've think they've captured that," he said. The Rhythm Club is the story of three young people living in Hamburg, Germany, as World War II nears. Two of them, Adam (Gleason) and Jake (Kushnier), have a swing band -- Jake is the bandleader with Adam providing the tunes and playing piano. When Petra (Kennedy) is overheard on the street singing a Mozart piece, she's invited into the band and discovers the jazz singer she never knew she was.
In the first number presented, "That Harlem Sound," both Jake and Adam, backed by their band (Kirk MacDonald and Kevin Kern) and manager (Megan Lawrence), persuade Petra to join them, explaining "intellectualizing can be paralyzing when you try that Harlem sound." Petra, following the "no vibrato, more staccato" urgings of the musicians, even learns to scat ala Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway.
The second number, "Pretending That I'm Someone Else," is a slow and heart-breaking, jazzy ballad for the first time Petra performs in The Rhythm Club. The couples in the club start a sexy swing dance to Petra's song as she gains confidence, before breaking out during a musical interlude to dance with Jake. With her triumph, the group immediately begins to believe in Jake's plans to take them to America ("Hello New York") where they will be play in clubs, meet Cab Calloway and fulfill their dreams.
But everything is not well in Hamburg. After a night out in the clubs, Adam and Petra return to their homes, where both of their fathers have gone missing, victims of Nazi oppression. Adam's mother Miriam (Barbara Walsh) watched them take away her husband that night, amazed at how polite he was to the people who were imprisoning him. Meanwhile, Petra's father disappeared months ago, after publishing some flyers for a friend. Both her mother Anna (Florence Lacey) and Miriam urge their children to compromise in order to survive in "They Taught Me Well."
The Rhythm Club is also a love story, set between the Jewish Adam and Petra. But it's a bitter sweet tale. A late second-act duet has Petra possibly fleeing for America, leaving Adam. Together they sing "Inside the Music," a parting song that promises "We're safe inside the music, a place no one else can find."
Other numbers in the show include "Nothing to Do But Dance," "Up in Heaven They Play Swing," "Onward (Hitler Youth Anthem)," "You Can't Buy My Love" and "Every Time I Raise These Hands." The musical ends in the bombed out remains of the Rhythm Club.
Working together now for seven years, Beguelin and Sklar came on the idea for Rhythm Club after writing Wicked City, a 1940's film noir take on the Oedipus story, when both partners were ready to try something different. Sklar was exploring swing and jazz music at the time and wanted to write in that milieu. So Beguelin went looking for a story.
"I was looking through old books on jazz and swing and kept coming across the story of the Hamburg Swings, about these kids who lived in 1938 in Hamburg where you could get arrested and go to jail for listening to a swing record. It's hard to imagine the sort of climate where if you just played a song on the piano you could get taken away. So I came up with an outline and showed it to Matt. At first, he said I don't know if we can pull this off. I said just think about it for awhile and pretty soon he came back and said let's do it," Beguelin said.
Sklar is best known around Broadway as a pit conductor, the youngest to ever take up the baton when he lead Les Miserables at age 21. While he's not sure if he'll ever lead Rhythm Club's orchestra ("Sounds interesting -- I don't know if they'll let me!"), he still loves conducting and wouldn't mind going back to it.
But he won't be grabbing the stick out of Kushnier's hand. While the Footloose star plays the bandleader, Sklar says the pianist Adam is more his style.
"There's way more of myself in Adam, the kind of person who stands in the back and observes. Jeremy and his character are very hands on. I'm the kind of person who stands back and watches everyone else do their thing," he said.
And Adam -- not Jake -- gets the girl, something Kushnier's not used to. "I don't get the girl in this one -- as much as I try, I don't get her," he laughed.
Kushnier, Kennedy et al have been hanging out in New York's swing clubs as of late to learn a little more about the movements and the flavor of the culture. This has aided Jodi Moccia's choreography. She is using various forms of swing to fit the mood of numbers in The Rhythm Club from line dances and jitterbug to "Pretending That I'm Someone Else"'s "dirty dance" swing.
The Rhythm Club begins performances at the Signature Theatre in Washington, DC, Sept. 7 for a run through Oct. 22. Tickets are $30. For reservations, call (703) 218-6500 or (800) 955-5566. The Rhythm Club is on the web at http://www.therhythmclub.com.
-- By Christine Ehren