The sky was as dark as an actress's roots when I pulled into the lot of Fort Lauderdale's Studio Theatre, where the newly formed Actors' Project has set up shop. For its first move on the local scene, the company is flexing its muscles with the musical Song of Singapore, a spoof of B-movie mysteries of the 1940s. You know the type: Saloon singer with a heart of gold and tarnished past tangles with crooked cops, foreign agents, and a corpse or two while trying to stop a priceless relic from falling into the wrong hands.
I'd come alone -- it was opening night, and anything could happen. After nodding to some of the greasepaint crowd, I checked the program to fill in some of the blanks. Tom Dillickrath, resident musical director for Miami's Actors' Playhouse, and actress Irene Adjan have developed the Actors' Project to put local talent on-stage in shows that will never make it to the big, legit houses. The two have moxie, and a talent for picking partners; they're already doing time as husband and wife. For their inaugural effort, they've chosen an off-Broadway hit that had a local run last year at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.
But now it's show time, and we make like statues.
Without the usual dimming of lights, the actors enter as if they've arrived for their nightclub gig and greet us as though we're barflies at Freddy's Song of Singapore Cafe. The SOS looks in distress, all right: A lone ceiling fan whirls slowly above a piano and three makeshift bandstands. At the bar, set off to the side of the stage, a few stools are the club's only furniture and perhaps sole survivors of its latest brawl. The dive hasn't got much, but its radio works, and we come in on a news flash. It's early December 1941, and things look pretty bad: Japanese troops are headed for Singapore, a monsoon is brewing, and someone has stolen the jewels of Jun Kin Po. Half of Singapore is readier than a mobster's moll to get hold of the sparklers; those priceless gems carry mystical powers.
The mugs on-stage aren't thieves, but musicians. The Malayan Melody Makers swing -- and I do mean swing -- into a trio of songs about how they've wound up on these rocks. The way these cats beat out boogie-woogie, you'd swear five pieces make a big band.
Brit-with-a-beat bandleader Freddy (Dillickrath) owns the club; when he's not playing sax and clarinet, he's slipping Mickey Finns to customers. The rest of the band doesn't need to hear him sing "Never Pay Musicians What They're Worth" to know Freddy's figured them for chumps. But they're broke, and they're stuck. Piano player Hans (David Nagy) has been in Dutch with his family since he gambled away their plantation; American ex-ball player Spike (Barry Tarallo) can't pass up the few greenbacks he earns on guitar, mandolin, and ukulele. Everyone in Freddy's has a story, it seems, but two band members -- Jacques, the French drummer (Joe Carrion), and Giovanni, the Italian bass player (Al Nigro) -- are keeping mum and letting their spine-popping music speak for them.
You can't have a band without a songbird, and dizzy Rose (Adjan) is flightier than most. Suffering from amnesia, she drifted into Freddy's one day, not knowing her name but remembering the words to countless honky-tonk ballads. The way she belts songs into the stratosphere like a Tin Pan Alley Babe Ruth, she makes the crowd forget everything too.
Before long Rose catches Inspector Kurland's (Antonio Amadeo) roving eye. He's a rogue who could rob Aesop and still come away without any morals. But Kurland knows one thing: The black market runs right through this cafe. The inspector wants the jewels as his retirement plan and thinks the band will get them for him, especially if he plants a mysterious Chinese beauty, Chah Li (Gia Bradley-Cheda), in the bar as his spy. But Chah Li has her own scheme for grabbing the glitter. And no sooner has she warned "Big trouble coming soon!" than an Indian courier reels in, clutching a package and a punched return ticket to the reincarnation merry-go-round.
Chah Li asks Freddy, "Do you know there's a dead man at the bar?" but the band takes the query for a musical request. Suddenly we're listening to the up-tempo "Necrology," and we know it's not just another night on the waterfront. In fact, the dead man, the looming invasion, the stolen jewels, and Rose's enigmatic past all cue up songs for a story line that never leaves the bandstand. Telling this bizarre tale in eighteen clever and comic tunes, the two-act musical forgoes plot development for fast laughs and jive. The band tangos with the audience, serves up hors d'oeuvres, and does a hilarious hula to the dream of an easier life in Hawaii. Even Kurland joins the fun as he grabs the mike to sing his naughty "Harbour of Love."
I figure only one person could make people act this way -- the director. Amy London pours on the juice like an ace bartender as she orchestrates a campy sendup without going over the top. London and her cast obviously get the joke and make sure that we do too, with broadly played characters, measured asides, and well-timed puns.
Yet even with the script's wild cards, the cast is still playing against the house, in this case the Studio Theatre. Too bad. It's hard to feel like a nightclub patron in a theater seat, and the audience participation in tangos and conga lines misses the mark; the venue lacks the feel of a real cabaret theater. Instead, the Studio Theater creates a fourth wall -- between actors and audience -- that I doubt even Joe Louis could have punched through. Though the band continued to play hot swing, my connection to the action got colder than a producer's heart.
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But in my game, patience pays off. And as torch singer Rose, Adjan packs plenty of heat, nailing both the jokes and the notes. Shifting between Gracie Allen amnesiac and Rosalind Russell dynamo, she's better than a double feature. And risking a fall for grand larceny, Amadeo as Kurland nearly steals the show. The only cast member to portray multiple roles, he plays not only the inspector but also harried waiters, Hindu bagmen, and an airline pilot who has the misfortune to end up at Freddy's. His Kurland makes comedy a matter of physical evidence, thanks to his rubbery kisser and an ability to twirl his limbs at impossible angles. Competent with the dialogue but soaring on their instruments, the rest of the cast drives the musical numbers home.
Suggesting that the production budget is probably even tighter than the band, Carl Waisanen's set, Mimsey Schemrick's costumes, and London's lighting design make the B-movie atmosphere look cheaper than ever -- though Nathan Rausch's crisp sound design lets both dialogue and music come through.
And that's not all that came across: The Actors' Project may not yet run like a thoroughbred, but with Song of Singapore, the company has delivered the goods on its first time out of the gate. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
Song of Singapore. Music and lyrics by Erik Frandsen, Robert Hipkens, Michael Garin, and Paula Lockheart; book by Alan Krantz and the composers/lyricists; directed by Amy London; with Irene Adjan, Antonio Amadeo, Gia Bradley-Cheda, Tom Dillickrath, David Nagy, Joe Carrion, Al Nigro, and Barry Tarallo. Through September 7. For more information call 954-977-4673; or see "Calendar Listings.