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Lamb’s Players extends ‘American Rhythm’

By Charlene Baldridge

Lamb’s Players Theatre first commissioned and produced “American Rhythm,” a musical and historical survey of the past century, in 2000. It was lauded for its ambition and the talent involved (Lamb’s does musicals exceptionally well) and carped over because there was both too much and not enough.

The prime complaint, and it’s been voiced again recently, following the July opening, is that the operative word, “American” limits its scope. After all, what is the 20th century without the British Invasion?

Be that as it may, Lamb’s currently takes another look at “American Rhythm,” placing it in the capable hands of original creators Kerry Meads and Vanda Eggington and adding the choreography of Colleen Kollar Smith and a crackerjack company comprising some of San Diego’s best musical theatre talent, Lamb’s veterans Sandy Campbell, Catie Grady, Siri Hafso, David S. Humphrey, Luke Harvey Jacobs, Benjamin Roy, and Lance Arthur Smith, plus newcomers Kiana Bell and Michael Cusimano.

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A scene from “American Rhythm” (Photo by Ken Jacques)

Adding to the riches is a fine, alert, and indefatigable seven-piece show orchestra, led by Andy Ingersoll from the keyboard, with Dave Rumley, Rik Ogden, Oliver Shirley, Dave Chamberlain, Stefanie Schmitz and Ross Mitchell. Some of them have performed at Lamb’s for more than 20 years.

Historically, “American Rhythm” surveys the Dust Bowl and westward migration, the Great Depression, two world wars, unpopular conflicts that followed, and all the attendant social changes. It aspires to do so without bias. Musically, it sweeps us from Tin Pan Alley to rock ‘n’ roll in a series of medleys performed in numerous combinations of talent and styles of movement.

Despite rewriting and trimming, the piece seems to change its mission and purpose after bogging down like so many Joads in the admittedly fascinating Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Then it becomes more of what it should have been all along — a showcase for personality laden, talented singers and dancers, performing to music that spans the century.

“Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “Over There,” “Smile, Smile, Smile,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “As Time Goes By,” the Charleston, the stock Market Crash, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” medleys of Sinatra and Elvis songs, space exploration, equal rights, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King; it’s all there, just a mention or in full exploration.

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“American Rhythm” showcases the entire 20th century, covering music, culture and news. (Photo by Ken Jacques)

The performances are outstanding, with indelible magic created by Bell’s rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” the chemistry and visual pleasure of dance performed by Hafso and Jacobs, and the company’s splendid adaptability and a cappella singing.

It’s perfect family entertainment, and indeed many families attended the matinee of Sunday, July 19, the day of my attendance.

Where else can one enjoy a full evening of Campbell and Humphrey and the smooth delivery of Smith, who is the principal narrator?

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 10.11.55 AMMike Buckley’s scenic design, Jeanne Reith’s comprehensive costume design, Nathan Peirson’s lighting, Patrick Duffy’s amazing sound design, and Blake McCarty’s projections support the show. All this and a history lesson, too. Lamb’s Producing Artistic Director Robert Smyth stages the work.

— Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. You can follow her blog at charlenebaldridge.com or reach her at charb81@gmail.com.

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