Review: 'Holiday at the Savoy'

Tabard Theatre production celebrates peace on Earth with seasonal songs
Rochelle Roberts, one of six vocalists starring in The Tabard Theatre Company's production of 'Holiday at the Savoy: A Tribute.' Photo illustration by Edmond Kwong & Stephanie Whigham

The Tabard Theatre Company kicks off this holiday season '40s style with a night of big band jazz, soaring vocals and swingin' moves. Holiday at the Savoy: A Tribute pairs period classics with beloved Christmas tunes for an uplifting segue into the new year.

The show is set in December 1945 at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. After four years of a global war that spawned nearly half a million casualties, the U.S. welcomed a holiday season filled with hope and newfound peace. The Savoy was one of the first racially integrated jazz clubs in the country and, in the words of writer Barbara Engelbrecht, the "soul of a neighborhood."

Nestled in the heart of a bustling restaurant district, the Theatre on San Pedro Square was a fitting venue for the tribute piece. Old brick walls and a rustic mahogany bar reinforce the atmosphere of a Manhattan nightclub. A row of circular tables decked in cocktails face the stage, making the entire room feel like a set.

In fact, there is no set. Nor characters, nor plot. The concert is entirely real—save the historic nuances—complete with a live jazz band and the audience.

Mohamed Ismail, the charismatic emcee and conductor of the band, introduces the first number—"Stompin' at the Savoy"—a 1934 jazz standard named after the hotspot. A flurry of 10 vocalists in brightly colored dresses and tuxedos run up to the stage as they tap, swing and snap away to the joyful anthem. Accompanied by iconic dance moves like the Charleston, Lindy hop and jitterbug, which all originated at the Savoy, the performance is an explosion of energy. Fast-paced and boldly tuned, the song embodies the spirit of a nation itching to celebrate at last.

Male performers are a minority onstage, echoing the reality of the day. Many men lost their lives or served overseas during World War II. As a result, women often danced with each other. At several points throughout the show, audience members are invited to dance and sing alongside the performers. The Tabard offers free swing dance lessons before every show for those looking to brush up on their steps. All of this makes for a highly participatory experience.

After the group performance is a series of solos, duets and trios that highlight the individual talents of each vocalist. Classic tunes from the swing era, such as "Tuxedo Junction" and "Moonlight Serenade," complement festive holiday favorites, including "Let It Snow" and "The Christmas Song"—all done big band style. Irene Trapp's delivery of "Santa Baby" was especially endearing. Trapp, who is the Tabard's vocal director, amuses the conductor with a sweet, sultry voice and animated movements as she goes down her extravagant Christmas list. The tongue in cheek song draws intermittent laughter from the crowd.

Just as the vocalists take turns performing onstage, each musician and instrument is given a moment to shine. Depending on the song, there are saxophone solos and trumpet solos and peppy conversations between the two as they engage in call-and-response. Vibrant piano riffs and a light high-hat backbeat underpin the band.

The singers and musicians hold equal weight in the show. Every player demonstrates talent and captures the Savoy spirit. However, the performance of the night goes to Tyler Okunski for his grandiose rendition of "Meglio Stasera," and Rochelle Roberts, who silenced the room with Billie Holiday's beautiful blues ballad "God Bless the Child." Okunski turns up the heat with a mighty voice and exuberance that perfectly captures the buoyant Latin number, topping off the performance with a dramatic drop and kick-up of his vintage mic. In contrast, Roberts' solo is slower and more intimate. She seamlessly traverses the low, bluesy pitches and occasional high notes of Holiday's song, boasting the most emotive voice of the bunch.

The Savoy Ballroom closed in 1958, but its spirit lives on in a little theater on San Pedro Street. Holiday at the Savoy: A Tribute is a fun and lively way for the whole family to get into the holiday mood through song, dance and the legacy of America's epic swing-era.

Holiday at the Savoy: A Tribute
Thru Dec 19, $37+
Theatre on San Pedro Square, San Jose

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