Big Band Theory’s stellar musicians nearly swing down the house - The Buffalo News
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Big Band Theory’s stellar musicians nearly swing down the house

This past Friday night as I left the Kavinoky Theatre, I checked to see if the doors were still intact. They were, but just barely.

I should explain.

“The Big Band Theory: When Swing Was King,” Jim Runfola’s paean to the Swing Era, those golden years in America and around the globe, had just finished reinventing Count Basie’s famous arrangement of “April in Paris.” The audience was on its feet.

“One more time” was the mantra.

“Big Band Theory” did indeed come close to blowing the doors off the Kav’s little jewel box of a theater. “April in Paris” came fast on the heels of maybe the best blaster of the night, “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Both tunes culminated an Act II that gave superb testimony to Runfola’s reverent arranging work, his astute musical director, Mark Vona, a stellar group of musicians, show director Kelly Cammarata, a quartet of singers – John Fredo, Loraine O’Donnell, Debbie Pappas and Norm Sham – and a pair of athletic and energized dancers, Nicole Cimato and Timmy Goodman.

The show was conceived and written by Runfola, a fixture in area stage bands for years and owner of an impressive resume that ranges from performing nationally to teaching locally. He’s gathered almost 40 tunes written by a who’s who list of composers and scoured the American Songbook for the familiar and the hallowed. His 13-member band, including himself on a trio of instruments, and his singers, presented the tunes with little rhyme or reason or chronological order.

Mid-1930s songs are many, apt because that’s when swing more or less began. Some pinpoint Aug. 21, 1934, the night of Benny Goodman’s famous Palomar Ballroom concert, when “white” and “black” music merged – and the famous adage and song, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” was underscored. Music lovers, history buffs, wordsmiths … this is a show for you.

Not all is perfect. Runfola’s show is without plot and some song set-ups, and the dances that accompany, are lame, silly and pointless. Cliches? They’re here.

Time periods are hazy; there is a noticeable marker for WWII. For those needing a comfort zone – two Judy Garland tunes and a nod to bossa nova influences. Nice to hear but a little out of place.

The singers. Great. John Fredo, deeper and richer of voice, is on top of his game, loving every second of this music, particularly on the lounge staple, “Fly Me to the Moon.” Loraine O’Donnell, overwrought on “At Last,” was invaluable otherwise. Norm Sham shines on the call and response “Minnie the Moocher,” Cab Calloway’s sad lament, and is very effective on Billie Holiday’s classic “God Bless the Child.” Debbie Pappas – night-long wonderful, with glorious diction and born to sing Gershwin or Harold Arlen.

Program notes might have included information about the legendary composers and bandleaders paraded in “The Big Band Theory.” There is much to learn about Fletcher Henderson, Louis Jordan, Johnny Mercer, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Strayhorn and from Bertolt Brecht, an improbable lyricist on “Mack the Knife,” as well as the giants, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey and Sy Oliver. A teaching moment lost.

Nevertheless, the Kavinoky’s 34th season has opened in rousing fashion.

Theater Review

3.5 stars

“The Big Band Theory: When Swing Was King”

Presented by Kavinoky Theatre through Oct. 6 in the theater at 320 Porter Ave. Tickets are $35-$39. Call 829-7668 or visit

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