Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Still, I can't say that that this cavalcade of Andrews Sisters' hits, a pair of vintage 1940s stage acts, Christmas songs, and testimonies from a sampling of menand one womanwho sacrificed so much defending our nation during World War II, makes a whole lot of sense.
The show places sisters Patty, Maxine and LaVerne in a rehearsal studio on Christmas Eve, 1944, readying to perform for servicemen back from war duty at a USO club. Guest stars slated to appear in their show are Bing Crosby and the comedy team Abbott and Costello. This is not as random as one might think. The Andrews Sisters performed and recorded frequently with Crosby, making a whopping 47 records together, 23 of which hit the Billboard charts. They appeared in three movies with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, including Buck Privates, which launched the trio's all-time greatest hit, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy."
However, the sisters are not content to just sing their popular songs and mug with their guests. To make the USO show more meaningful for their audience, they've solicited letters sent home to loved ones from those fighting in the war, intending to read the letters aloud during the show and link a song selection to each one. Their manager, Lou Levy, is dead set against the idea, saying it will slow down the show's pacing and bring down the mood.
Nonetheless, the letters pour in and as Patty, LaVerne or Maxine read them in their dressing room, the letters' authors takes over, with actors conveying the fear, the loneliness, the drudgery, and sometimes the ambivalence they feel. That last point is made with letters voicing such concerns as a Japanese medic whose parents are in an internment camp, a female bomber pilot dealing with the incredulity of her male peers, a Black tank gunner chomping at the injustice of fighting to keep America free while knowing how his freedom back home is curtailed, and likewise Native American and Hispanic soldiers. Other letters, written by white servicemen, deal with family issues, the pain of separation from a sweetheart, and other more universal concerns.
While all of these elements have their merits, putting them all togetherseasonal songs to set the tone for the arrival of Christmas, a glimpse into the heyday of the Andrews Sisters' storied career, a recollection of the sacrifices made by those on the frontlines, and a probing consideration of the contradictions between our fight-to-the-death for freedom and the reality of racial and gender injustice still entrenched in the United Statesis a lot. With so much baggage on stage, it's amazing the cast has room to do their routines, with much credit going to director Ron Peluso, who keeps the shifts from the rehearsal hall to those at warfor the most part, positioned on a balcony that arcs around the back of History Theatre's thrust stagemoving with coherence and grace.
The lead performers also make these disparate ingredients into something approaching a whole. Jen Burleigh-Bentz has been with Christmas of Swing since its first run in 2004, so her performance as LaVerne is highly polished, projecting the sense of the oldest of the sisters who exercises a steadying influence. Elena Glass as Patty and Julia Ennen as Maxine are both new to the show, but each brings a clear voice and sparkling presence, with Glass projecting Patty as the risk-taker in the family, and Ennen conveying Maxine's personal pull on manager Lou Levy. The three sing in lovely, syncopated harmony, which of course is imperative when portraying the Andrews Sisters.
Ryan London Levin is excellent as Levy, whose hard-nosed approach has kept the Andrews out in front for many years. Max Wojtanowicz channels a good facsimile of Bing Crosby, not only in voice but in his faux laid-back demeanor. Tom Reed as Bud Abbott and Brendan Nelson Finn as Lou Costello manage to make the comedy legends' resurrected routines entertaining, if not hilarious, and offer a swell version of "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning." Allison Vincent scores points as the grouchy stage manager trying to keep the rehearsal moving.
The entire cast is affecting in their turns as soldiers and pilots baring their souls through the letters sent home. Thomas Draskovic is especially moving as a member of the Ojibwe, trying to parse together his convictions about fighting for his land when that land is, in a real sense, no longer his. He expresses his deep pride in his native culture in an endearing bit as he teaches another G.I how to say "blueberry pie" in Ojibwe. Peyton Dixon hits the mark head-on as he bristles at General Patton's urging the troops to win it for him, when he knows, as a Black soldier, that nobody is fighting on his behalf back home.
The onstage band led by music director David Lohman consists of just piano, bass, drums and reeds, but provides a full-sounding accompaniment to the many songs on the program. Kathy Kohl has dressed the sisters, their guests, and the soldiers in costumes apt for the period, and Kathy Maxwell's video montages offer smatterings of the real face of war, a somber backdrop as the letters back from the front are being read. The set, the lighting, and the sound, are all up to History Theatre's high standards.
There is a lot of music: 25 musical numbers, and three of those are medleys comprising a few songs apiece. The show starts out with the tepid "Jing-a-ling, Jing-a-ling," but the next number, "Kalamazoo," is a honey. Other highlights are Bing's crooning of "Christmas in Killarney"; two songs performed by the sisters and Levin, first in the role of the manager ("I'll Never Smile Again") and then as a lovesick soldier ("You're All I Want for Christmas"); a beautiful and troubling "O Holy Night," with Ennen in the lead and a montage of war carnage on the screens behind her; "A Hot Time in the Town of Berlin" with Bing joining the sisters; "I'll Be Home for Christmas" sung with great tenderness by Adán Varela, andyou knew it was cominga rousing "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," with everyone joining in the party, and Jan Puffer's choreography making its biggest mark. The show concludes with a sobering tribute to those who fought in the war, "American Anthem."
The show premiered by History Theatre in 2004 as a holiday-themed follow-up to their extremely successful Sisters of Swing about the Andrews Sisters, who were born and raised in Minneapolis. That show, mixing biography with the trio's hits, drew large audiences to its first run and a remount the following year. It made sense to apply that magnetism to a holiday show. The current run is the third time Christmas of Swing has been remounted by History Theatre.
Christmas of Swing has lots of good music and solid performances, offers a glimpse of prime 1940s entertainment, reminds us the holidays are near, and honors the great many who gave so much to win the second World War. So, what's wrong? Looking at the individual parts, nothing. Still, the glue that would forge those pieces together just seems to be missing, in spite of the best efforts of all involved. This doesn't mean it's a show to avoid, in fact if you are a fan of the Andrews Sisters' sound, or appreciate entertainments that honor our nation's heroes, this could be your ticket. Just be prepared to enjoy all the parts, without necessarily loving the show.
Christmas of Swing runs through December 19, 2021, at History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: Tiers 1-3: $45.00 - $60.00; seniors (age 60+) $40.00 - $55.00; under 30 -$30.00; Students, ages 5-18, $15.00 with ID. Golden Circle tickets: $65.00, no discounts. For tickets and information, please call 651-292-4323 or visit historytheatre.com.
Playwright: Bob Beverage, in collaboration with Ron Peluso, Jan Puffer and David Lohman, with additional material by Ernie Briggs; Director: Ron Peluso; Choreography: Jan Puffer; Music Director: David Lohman; Scenic Design: Nicole DelPizzo; Costume Design: Kathy Kohl; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Video Design: Kathy Maxwell; Properties Design: Kirby Moore; Dramaturg: Richard D. Thompson; Artistic Associate: Laura Flanigan Hegge; Technical Director: Gunther Gullickson; Assistant Director: Ernie Briggs; Assistant Choreographer: A.C. Johnson; Production Manager and Stage Manager: Wayne Hendricks; Assistant Stage Manager: Haley Walsh
Cast: Kevin Brown Jr. (Hank/Tuskegee Airman Harold Brown/ensemble), Jen Burleigh-Bentz (LaVerne Andrews), Peyton Dixon (Tuskegee Airman/Black Panther Tank Officer), Thomas Draskovic (Donald/announcer/ensemble), Julia Ennen (Maxine Andrews), Brendan Nelson Finn (Lou Costello/soldier), Elena Glass (Patty Andrews), Deryck Hak (Medic Minoru Masuda), Ryan London Levin (Lou Levy, soldier), Tom Reed (Bud Abbott, soldier), Adán Varela (Paratrooper Armando/nosy soldier), Allison Vincent (Ernie/Flo/ensemble), Max Wojtanowicz (Bing Crosby, soldier).