Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Encore Musical Theatre Company has outdone itself with the setting for its Michigan premiere of Club Morocco — as I walked in, I truly didn't recognize the place. The proscenium stage has been ripped out to make way for a towering bandstand, designed by Daniel C. Walker, and the modified seating sets low pub tables adjacent to three sides of the dance floor. The attractive cast mills about before the play begins, chatting up the nearest audience members, giving dance step refreshers, and offering table service. Fortified by live music, drinks, and dancing, the line between the show Club Morocco and the Club Morocco experience is virtually nonexistent, just as intended by is co-creators, Jon Huffman and Barbara F. Cullen (who also serves as director and choreographer).

Within this format, the basic elements of musical theater are broken apart and compartmentalized. Yes, the dancers sometimes sing, and vice versa, but the emphasis on cabaret-style entertainment instead of storytelling allows the show to capitalize on its set list and showcase its performers' best. Viewers get the merest taste of plot in a pat little story, which delves no deeper than man, woman, betrayal, firearms. Film noir conventions are strewn about as hard-boiled Frank McCann (Paul Kerr) discusses the loss of his elusive and mysterious "swing" — repeated attempts to pull double entendres from the word fall flat, as does any pretense that these developments matter in the long run. Happily segregated, meted out in tiny vignettes and otherwise forgotten, the story is no match for this production's real draw: classic swing numbers that get many viewers on their feet.

The singing is generally left to guarded Velvet St. Regis (Barbara Coven), plucky Nugget Rialto (Jessica Grové), and suave emcee Bobby LaRue (Steve DeBruyne). The voices are solid across the board and the performances compelling, but none can hold a candle to Grové's, whose singing has the spellbinding Garland-esque quality of being dually powerful and pure. Band leader Chick Valentine (Tony D. Owens Jr.) only speaks in jive, but the actor's overwhelming enjoyment as he sings and dances transcends language. Born decades too late for the heyday of swing, I was still familiar with most of the tunes, which are given reverent big-band splash by a tireless combo. Walker's bandstand is configured to place the musicians and featured singer above the dance floor, within the audience's line of vision — the only drawback being that sometimes so many things are happening concurrently, it becomes difficult for the performers to throw focus to the right place.

Speaking of so many things happening, oh, the dancing. A half-dozen smiling youths kick and spin and tap until their cummerbunds and hair accessories threaten to fly off from the effort. (Ever sparkly, feathery, and glamorous, the performers go through enough costumes to merit designer Colleen E. Meyer hazard pay.) One of the best-received numbers was a dueling-taps extravaganza by the brothers Wannabe (Evan Williams and Sebastian Gerstner), who are as notable for their moves as for the delightfully moronic goon characters to which they wholeheartedly commit. Supplementing the choreographed dance numbers is the show's version of an all-skate, when the audience is encouraged to join the dance floor. A clearly explained lighting cue makes the concept of okay to dance/not okay to dance a snap to follow, and although no viewer is pressured to join in, dancers of all skill levels jumped at the opportunity.

Despite its musical-theater premise and venue, Club Morocco's electric atmosphere dominates an evening of song and dance liberated from the pretense of a plot. Skilled, polished performances make the production feel like a floor show, and the controlled chaos of the audience-participation numbers feels like a party. Just like a night out at the club, this is the kind of production where I can't remember half of what happened, can't recall the names of some tunes, but remember plenty well that I had a great time.


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