Corrections or additions?
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
"Swingtime Canteen," playing Fridays through Sundays at
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
wing protruding onto the stage, its strut resting on a realistic
bomber tire. Above and behind the wing is the live five-piece
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
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
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
— Joan Crespi
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
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.