If we’re to believe Joan Baez, protest music is supposed to be a dowdy affair. It should respond to the gravitas, the full “tragedy” of the situation. But nations have been fighting unjust wars (and artists have commented on them) since well before the 1960’s. Consider Strike Up The Band, the 1927 Gershwin musical recently staged by the Boston Conservatory at Midway Studios in South Boston. (I saw the April 24 performance.) A fake conflict stirred up by and for commercial interests? Check. Accusations of wayward patriotism directed at protesters? Check. Suspensions of constitutional rights? Check. High-flying, flag-waving rhetoric of “freedom” and “democracy?” Check. In the show, an American cheese magnate successfully pushed through legislation imposing steep tariffs on imported cheese. The Swiss object, so he foments a war effort to get them to back down. He offers to pay for it, provided it is named after him (the Horace J. Fletcher Memorial War) and he receives a healthy share of the profits. America wins. To ensure that it was “The War That Ended War” (a third-act song), he helps found a League of Cheeses. As it is a 1927 Gershwin musical, this war also had several love stories, as well as superb melodicism and wit. The finely-crafted George S. Kaufman book made it far more than an excuse for singing and dancing.
The show was staged Saturday evening, April 24, at Midway Studios, one of the school’s auxiliary theaters. Getting there was a bit like finding a speakeasy: venture to South Boston, drift into the industrial area near the post office, follow a couple side streets, enter the converted factory building. The stage was a black box theater with some brick walls. The orchestra had to be hidden at an elevated level. The walls created a very live acoustic for the choral numbers. Individual voices, despite amplification, were often swallowed. As might be expected with a school production, talent was uneven, but in some places it really shined. Steven Cardona may just be a Junior in college, but he’s also a very talented choreographer. He made sure standards like “The Man I Love” and “I’ve Got a Crush On You” got integrated into the larger story. Nathan Scott Hancock played an elvish Spelvin. He had a fluid dancing style and a fun comic sense. Olivia Kenwell’s Mrs. Draper was both a sassy and gawky guardian for her daughter, Ann. Chelsea Turbin brought a combination of ambition and naiveté to that character.
Adam Fenton Goddu’s Fletcher was often the broad-shouldered tycoon, but transitioned awkwardly between his imperious and comic moments. His daughter Joan (Marissa Miller) had a thin voice, but came off as the most sensible and mature romancer of the set. Jim (Taylor Avazpour), her beau, seemed stiff, I think a result of trying to maintain good posture for singing (which he did). The two of them never quite found their chemistry. Tim (Edward Tolve), the factory foreman and Ann’s suitor, found the harried posture of a middle manager. Sloane (Trey Harrington) had a lot of opportunity to show interesting emotions (a spurned lover given the opportunity to humiliate his rival), but his affect had a general feel to it. Stephen Markarian’s General Holmes was a mousey military man who balanced well his bumbling personality with his real authority as presidential confidante.
F. Wade Russo acted as both stage and musical director. He gave the music a light swing and a round sound. The band sounded refined, but not with the fun refined out of it. The set was quite minimal; banners and signs, basically. While there was no scenery to indicate “factory” or “Swiss Alps,” the variety in direction clearly communicated the variety in setting. The eye was never bored with the on-stage activity.
Love stories dominate musical theater. Strike Up The Band is no exception, but it ends with a twist. As the war ends, it appears Joan and Jim will finally be able to be together. However, their reprise of “The Man I Love” is cut off by the return of a mass chorus. It would appear Russia is agitating over caviar tariffs. Since Fletcher used his war profits to invest in caviar, he decides it’s time for yet another war. The couple is split again, as it’s implied Jim will have to return to active duty. Love, it would seem, doesn’t always conquer all.