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This review by Joan Crespi was prepared for the November 15, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Swingtime Canteen’

For seniors (a.k.a. "the greatest generation")

"Swingtime Canteen" is a welcome trip down memory lane. And

more. For later generations it offers stirring entertainment and a

glimpse into the past, to a time before rock or rap, when swing was

the popular music. And not just because swing dancing is the current

craze for American teens. The opening night audience included one

party celebrating an 80th birthday and a pair of twins celebrating

their 15th.

"Swingtime Canteen," playing Fridays through Sundays at

Hopewell’s

Off-Broadstreet Theater, through December 9, is set in World War II,

when movie stars and others entertained the troops. Canteens were

set up for servicemen here and abroad, where hostesses served food

— here one of the actors descends into the audience (we become

an audience of servicemen) with a plate of cookies — and danced

with the servicemen. In this show, directed and designed by Robert

Thick, while some songs are choreographed, it is the songs — 32

of them — that make the show.

The scene is an airplane hanger in London festooned with bunting for

the troop show. A bomber, drawn onto the backdrop, has a

three-dimensional

wing protruding onto the stage, its strut resting on a realistic

rubber

bomber tire. Above and behind the wing is the live five-piece

orchestra,

directed by pianist Edward McCall. Comprised of both men and women,

all wear men’s wartime khaki uniforms.

"Swingtime Canteen" opened Off-Broadway in 1995, played for

over 300 performances, then was produced around the nation and in

London. In New York Maxene Andrews, one of the three famous singing

Andrews Sisters, made a cameo appearance as herself. The show also

featured Emily Loesser, whose father, Frank, wrote several of the

show’s songs including "I Don’t Want to Walk Without You"

and "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition."

This is not a musical so much as a revue; its book, by Linda Thorsen

Bond, William Repicci, and Charles Busch, is so slight as to be almost

nonexistent. In Act I the characters are sketchily established and

the songs are held together by the actors’ sniping, funny wisecracks.

The fictional ensemble of five is led by Marian Ames (Peggy Waldron),

a movie star with five flops and a failing career, who is fond of

dropping names of "her friends," movie stars of the time —

e.g. Veronica Lake, Joan Crawford, and Lana Turner. (In fact Waldron’s

mother was with the USO during World War II, entertaining troops in

the U.S. and abroad as a solo tap dancer.)

Julie Thick, the play’s choreographer and co-producer, says she cast

the show on voices, but she has succeeded in finding singers who can

also dance. And she captures not only the dance steps, but the

accompanying stylized arm and hand gestures of the period.

Others in the company are Jo Sterling (Suzanne Houston), the tomboy

and Marian’s stand-in, Lilly McBain (Marla Endick) "our glamour

girl" and "a testimonial to the art of make-up," Topeka

(Lynnea Fuccille) from "the other side of the tracks," and

Katie (Esther H. Cohen), Marian Ames’s niece. Houston, a Princeton

resident, teaches drama at John Witherspoon Middle School. OBT

audiences will remember her from "Abie’s Irish Rose" and

"Triumph of Love." Marla Endick played in OBT’s "Finger

Painting in a Murphy Bed." The other three players are newcomers

to OBT.

While the show’s Andrew Sisters medley falls short —

the Andrews Sisters were inimitable — the other songs are varied

— sentimental, melancholy, dreamy, vigorous. And nearly all the

songs are well sung. I found myself weeping, and not just from

nostalgia. I felt a sense of double view, a superimposition, hearing

these songs in America in a theater audience, in the year 2000, in a

land of peace and freedom, more than 55 years after I had heard them

on radio, with the menace of real war always in the background and

relatives and older acquaintances in constant danger overseas.

In the show’s opening act, the war is kept in the background. But

the performance never flags, the songs spliced together by the

singers’ witty, caustic, funny remarks. ("Foot-in-the-mouth."

"I’ll bet those size 12s hurt.") At the end of the act comes a

spark of plot: the tour must end. It’s too dangerous for female

entertainers to continue. (What a comparison with today’s female

combatants.) But proving their mettle, the women end Act I with a

razzle-dazzle tap dance.

In Act II, young Katie admits to aunt Marian that she has secretly

married Scotty, and as she sings to him "How High the Moon,"

a funny thing happens: she is crying. And Lilly has to cut short her

solo: she too is crying. On opening night Marla Endick, in the role

of Lilly, seemed to surprise herself, surprised by powerful feelings

fueled by the energy of the audience. Here were five women, all too

young to have lived through any war, yet the feeling in the songs

and situations came through. Then comes the anxiety, the heartache,

the longing, as each woman reveals how she is separated from a man

she loves, someone who might not return — Marian from Philip,

whom she might marry after the war. The women embrace and comfort

each other.

Next comes a bombing raid, and the war becomes real. The women are

scared. Now it’s glamorous, vain Lilly, who has never loved anyone,

who inspires courage. Their cattiness vanishes. And they are inspired

by two songs from World War I: to whip up courage, the audience (we

servicemen) is invited to sing along. After the raid comes a note

from General Eisenhower permitting the inspiring tour to continue,

and the news that Marian has been nominated for an Oscar.

The show is rousing, vibrant, and entertaining, the costumes by

Patricia A. Hibbert bright and appropriate. The swingtime era songs

still move. The audience, we servicemen, come back to our lives,

applauded long and heartily. These lasting songs touch even a

World-War-untouched generation.

— Joan Crespi

Swingtime Canteen, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South

Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766. The musical, set in 1944,

about two women who decide to sing for the GIs across the Atlantic.

$20.50 & $22. Performances Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays to December

9.


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