News Column

Swingtime Salute returns with new look, sound

June 7, 2013

YellowBrix

June 07--Choreographer Jen Jenkins sat 10 rows back in Nauticus Theater to watch rehearsals last week for her latest show, "Swingtime Salute, The USO Battleship Revue."

The World War II-era variety show, which was set for its second summer on the deck of the battleship Wisconsin on the downtown Norfolk waterfront, provided a homecoming of sorts for Jenkins. As the performers sing in one of the show's many upbeat songs, she has been off "to see the world" and has come back in the role she dreamed of while growing up here.

Since the former Governor's School for the Arts dance student graduated in 1998, she has been dance captain for national and international tours of Broadway musicals. Lately, she's moved up a notch to land jobs as the associate choreographer at top national theaters.

Here in Norfolk, she's the one and only movement queen, having been recommended by last year's "Swingtime" choreographer, who is busy on Broadway with the new "Annie" musical.

"This is a whole new show," Jenkins said. "All new choreography and a new set."

She's enjoyed immersing herself in the era. "This period of time is sort of the reason I became a dancer. This 1940s movie musical style. Take that and plug it into a USO show" and you've got "Swingtime."

It opened Wednesday and continues through July 6.

Much more is fresh in "Swingtime Salute." Patrick Mullins, who wrote the show and again is directing, said he has "drastically changed" it.

Based on feedback he got during last year's pilot project, Mullins added eight songs and took out a few. He dumped the cowboy character and a lot of corny jokes. And he called for more tap dancing, which comes under Jenkins' purview.

Or rather, hoofing. There's a difference, you know. But more on that later.

The original partners for "Swingtime" are Nauticus, a maritime center that curates the battleship, and the Virginia Stage Company, which created and produced the show.

This year a third partner came on: USO of Hampton Roads and Central Virginia.

In 2012 organizers had to call "Swingtime" a USO-type entertainment. This year the name USO is front, center and solid, owing to the relationship.

"That's an incredibly important marketing tool," said Hank Lynch, executive director of Nauticus. USO officials told him they would promote the show to the military throughout the region. Earlier this week, a plug for "Swingtime" was featured on its website.

In exchange, admission will be free to all active-duty military personnel, as it is for all USO activities. That was the deal. "As we thought about that, that's really the right thing to do anyway," Lynch said.

Even without the USO connection, sales were strong last year. "Over a five-week period, we brought in 6,800 people," Lynch said. "I think that's significant. These are people who also ate in our restaurants, parked in our garages, spent the night here and told us they had fun."

A main purpose of the show is to provide "a unique experience that helps bring wealth" to the city in just such ways, he said.

Because it's geared to benefit Norfolk in those ways, the city lent Nauticus $150,000 last spring to seed the show. Those funds were needed to pay all the production costs, from actors' salaries to costumes, before box office income came in and before Nauticus' summer tourist influx.

As planned, those funds were repaid to the city in the last fiscal year.

Lynch said the city again has fronted Nauticus $150,000, also to be repaid within the year. "I don't think the city would look at it as a risk," he said. "They look at it as an investment."

Another change for this year's "Swingtime" is the setup. The previous concept was a radio show in Act 1 and a live on-deck revue in Act 2, emceed by a Bob Hope-style comedian.

This year, the entire 90-minute revue is shaped as a single live show in summer 1944 on a ship in the South Pacific.

Also, instead of audiences facing the water and the glaring sun as it sets over the Elizabeth River, patrons this year will look toward the ship and its mighty guns.

The same women who portrayed the singing and dancing Bronowski Sisters (Lindsey Eure and Gabriela Gomez) and the starlet Lorelei Leigh (Lianne Marie Dobbs) are returning.

The male characters -- an emcee, a singing sailor and a bandleader -- are all new. Also, the little "big band" has grown this year to six musicians. "We added two brass players," Mullins said. "Mostly trombone and trumpet, to get a richer sound. You can't have that big-band swing sound without brass."

The new songs include "Someone to Watch Over Me," "I'm Beginning to See the Light," "Straighten Up and Fly Right," and "Sentimental Journey."

Like last year, all the performers, except one, are members of Actors' Equity, the labor union representing American actors and a mark of professionalism.

Preston Boyd, who plays Richard Love, had a comic role earlier this year in the Virginia Stage Company's production of the musical "Frog Kiss." He tapped and sang in that one, too.

Or should we say "hoof."

Mullins called Boyd an old-time hoofer, like Bob Hope. Can Boyd, who is 27, relate to that?

Sure. He said, "It's very rhythmic tapping. Hoofing, you can think of as drumming with your feet. Tap dancing, it's a lot more arms and is a cleaner, more classic look."

"Hoofing makes a lot of sound." That is, it's extra loud.

Boyd's never been a stand-up comic, but said, "I do it so much in my normal life, it feels natural."

His approach is to deliver a mildly risque comment about one of the gals on stage, then pick out a face in the audience and smile, "as if to say, I can't believe I got away with that."

Boyd said he felt moved during their first rehearsal on the deck of the Wisconsin, especially near the end of the show when the bandleader sings "God Bless America."

"We're all looking back at the flag waving in the wind. And that was the moment where everything came together."

That's when he really felt, "What an honor to be performing for these guys who served the country.

"Ultimately, that's why we're here. For those guys."

Teresa Annas, (757) 446-2485, teresa.annas@pilotonline.com

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if you go

What "Swingtime Salute, The USO Battleship Revue"

Where On the deck of the battleship Wisconsin at Nauticus, 1 Waterside Drive, Norfolk

When 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays through July 6 with 2 p.m. matinees on June 26 and 29 and July 3 and 6

Cost $30 Wednesdays and Thursdays, $40 Fridays and Saturdays, $20 to any performance for ages 4 to 12, free to active-duty military; discounts for retired military; $10 more for VIP seating up front and a commemorative souvenir

Contact (757) 627-1234, www.vastage.com; or Ticketmaster, (800) 982-2787; tickets at Nauticus and at Virginia Stage box office, 110 Tazewell St., Norfolk

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(c)2013 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at pilotonline.com

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