Sassy singer/songwriter Beth Tinnon brings back to Dante Hall her classy musical retrospective on the decade known as the Roaring ’20s.
Unlike such variables as song selection, expertise of contributing musicians, commitment to authenticating video backdrops, wardrobe, stage settings and other components, timing is not always something Beth Tinnon, or anyone else, can control.
But when the popular local singer/songwriter first debuted her many-sided show called A Night at the Speakeasy: A Musical Journey through the ’20s, her timing was impeccable in one regard, a bit less so in another.
Tinnon premiered the production to an appreciative audience at Dante Hall in June 2009, right around the same time the pilot episode for another retrospective on Prohibition-era America was picked up by HBO. Boardwalk Empire has since won 12 Emmy awards and counting, in addition to other international awards and nominations. (Volumne One of the show's soundtrack also racked up a Grammy Award.)
In the latter case, Tinnon’s one-night production was seen on the same night a Grammy-winning jazz vocalist/pianist headlined in Atlantic City.
“I story-booked it and put everything together, and only then did I notice: ‘Oh my goodness, Diana Krall is in town on the exact same night,'” says Tinnon.
Regardless, A Night at the Speakeasy was extremely well received — so much so that Tinnon tweaked it a bit and strategically brought it back as a unique entertainment option for those who enjoy the resort town during the off-peak seasons. It was originally scheduled for November but pushed to Saturday, Jan. 12, at Dante Hall (8pm) by Hurricane Sandy.
“There’s a lot of change going on in Atlantic City, and I thought why not provide something for the folks who are still here?” says Tinnon.
“There are still quite a few people coming to Atlantic City this time of year who are not just here to gamble, and for some it may be the only time of year they can afford to go away on vacation. I understand there’s a smaller percentage of people coming this time of year, but I’d like to think we could still try to offer something to them that’s educational, culturally relevant and entertaining at the same time.”
Tinnon never goes away during the summer months herself since that is when resort-town entertainers make most of their money. It was when she used to do a jazz gig at the former Top of the Trop that she was inspired to write and produce A Night at the Speakeasy, as she began delving, more out of curiosity than anything, into the history of some of the jazz numbers she was covering and the artists who originally performed them.
“I tweaked it this time around — I added a couple of things and changed a couple of songs,” she says.
“The arrangements are a little tighter, which I’m pretty excited about. There’s dialogue that goes along with every song, usually in the beginning but sometimes in the middle. The songs progress in chronological order through the ’20s and I’ll talk about what was going on at the time as far as the architecture, gangsters, crime and the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, women voting for the first time in the national election, the Great Depression. But the whole thing that ties everything together is Prohibition.
“[The dialogue] helps the audience establish a relationship between some of the people who wrote many of the songs they’re likely familiar with, but maybe not always with the artists themselves,” she adds. “[The format] works especially well in a small, intimate theater like Dante Hall, which is my favorite kind of venue to play. It’s just big enough [seating about 240] where you can get a nice-sized audience and also get that buzz, that vibe that’s such a part of the room.”
And once again, Tinnon has surrounded herself with a quartet of musicians who are not only among the best the Atlantic City area has to offer, but anywhere. Their collective pedigrees, based on formal training and those they have toured with or backed up in recording studios, reads like a who’s who among musical legends of modern times. They include Andy Lalasis on upright bass, Jeff Turner on piano, Harry Himles on drums, and John Guida on tenor sax, clarinet and flute.
“They are all sensational,” says Tinnon. “We do a four-song Duke Ellington tribute and those guys are just cooking [on the first three], and I’ll come in and join them on the fourth.”
The production includes three costume changes. Among the period-appropriate dresses Tinnon wears is one she traveled up to a New York City vintage shop to purchase. An aficionado of antiques, Tinnon adorned the stage set with some of her own memorabilia, including an authentic [although not functional] 1920s radio.
“I love antiques. When I was moving out on my own my mom would always find things and say ‘oh look what I found for you to put in your music room.’ I have an upright piano my father purchased — an old player piano from the 1920s that someone had gutted and shellacked — it was awful. When I moved up here and started getting steady work I had it refurbished, and now it looks like it just came out of the factory.”
Among the genres of music A Night at the Speakeasy embodies are country (catapulted into popularity in the mid-1920s by the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast, which originates from Tinnon’s home town of Nashville, Tennessee) and gospel, also made widely popular by radio in the 1920s.
“In the country section I wanted to touch more on the recording industry and bringing country music to the airways, and the Carter Family was synonymous with that,” says Tinnon. “So this time we decided to do ‘Circle Be Unbroken,’ which is actually a song that I grew up singing and know like the back of my hand.”
The final song is a gospel number for which Tinnon enlisted the help of high school children from the Charter Tech School for the Performing Arts in Somers Point.
“It’s a number that is designed to lift people’s spirits after the Great Depression,” says Tinnon, “and one that sort of captures the essence of our coming together as a nation by trusting in one another, and leaning on our faith.”
'The whole world now will start listening and really finding out how great the music of the 1920s is. It brings it up to the forefront.'
"Eddie lived in a kind of musically optimistic 1920s place even though he had a shitty childhood. His parents died when he was young but his grandmother raised him and he was little and scrawny so he got beaten up a lot. He learned to make jokes so he could avoid getting beaten up, so from then on he realized this singing and dancing thing could work."
“It’s been my love and passion ever since I was five years old and I think this music moves people. People who come to see us, they say, ‘When I got here I was in kind of a blah mood, not so good, or depressed, or whatever and I come out in just a whole different place. I’m laughing, my spirits are lifted, it’s cheaper than going to a psychiatrist!’”
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