It’s the last week of Café Society Swing’s strictly limited run at Theatre Royal Stratford East and we’re here to tell you why you should rush to the theatre to see it before it closes on Saturday 16 June.
The semi-staged musical set in the famed Café Society – the first racially-integrated jazz club in New York – gives you a brief history of the club, the troubles it faced, and the world-class performers that graced its stage. With historical and culturally relevant themes and beautiful performances, it’s a must-see for both jazz enthusiasts and novices alike. And if that’s not enough convincing, here are five reasons to see Café Society Swing.
Okay, this doesn’t really have anything to do with the show itself but it’s worth noting. Even though it’s my local theatre, this was my first visit to the Theatre Royal Stratford East. It’s intimate without being twee or claustrophobic. It has beautiful, traditional decor consisting of deep reds and gold trims. It’s just a lovely, relaxed theatre which was the perfect setting for Café Society Swing. Plus, there are a lot of local people who seemed to visit the theatre last minute or on a whim.
As the show tells the tale of the first inter-racial jazz club in New York, the song list is incredible. Whether jazz is your thing or not, you won’t be able to resist the familiar hits of Billie Holiday, Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan. One performance, in particular, left the crowd stunned and in awe. A powerful rendition of Billie’s Strange Fruit reminded the contemporary audience of the racial tensions that these sensational artists experienced and the change they campaigned for with every breath they had.
And what’s a good setlist without great singers? China Moses, Vimala Rowe and Judi Jackson gave enchanting performances that embodied each historical artist to a tee. Every time one of them slinked on to the stage, you were transported to the dark corners of a 1940s bar where anything can happen. The standout, though, has to be Vilma who’s Billie Holiday evoked the strong yet fragile legend’s essence.
Accompanying the incredible singers was the equally brilliant band. Comprising of keys, drums, strings and brass, each solo hits just the right note, creating a gorgeous atmosphere that makes you sink into the music. They were led by the show’s music director and creator Alex Webb on the piano and you could feel his passion and determination throughout.
As mentioned above, Café Society Swing confronts the subject of race and inequality head-on. The narrator, played by Peter Gerald, takes on multiple characters providing various points of view on the club and on the idea of racial integration. Starting with a journalist hell-bent on shutting down the venue, you’re faced with the stark reality of segregation and the unabashed discrimination people of the era proudly displayed. The following narrators – a bartender from the club and the owner, Barney Josephson – showed that some were more than just interested in change, but emotionally (and financially) invested in it. It’s an incredibly important story to tell and remember.