Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2005
I really don’t understand why this is such a dismal production of Swingtime Canteen. This is the kind of small, funny revue that the Theater Barn usually does very well. Director Peggy Ayn Maas has a long history with this show – she is featured on the original cast album in the role of Lily McBain and has directed and appeared in many productions over the past decade since the show opened off-Broadway in 1995. Furthermore she choreographed the fine production of Cabaret the Theater Barn mounted last summer, so she has experience with the space and working with Laura Binstock, who played Sally Bowles in Cabaret and appears here as Katie Gammersflugel. This should be a fun evening of theatre, and it ain’t.
I lay some of the blame squarely at the feet of Musical Director Donya Lane, who is also a veteran Swingtime Canteen performer. She has failed to balance the sound and properly mic the space so that singers and speakers are frequently drowned out by the instrumental music, especially the drums. I am an outspoken critic of body mics, especially in a space as intimate as the Theater Barn, but since the band has to be on the stage in this show, some kind of amplification would have helped the performers immeasurably. There is one 1940’s period standing mic on the stage, and when it is in use everything is all right, but one lone mic can’t do it all in group numbers, particularly when the performers are moving about the stage or dancing.
Swingtime Canteen is about an all-girls band performing a concert in war-torn London in 1944, and so the instruments not only have to be on stage but at least some of the actors have to be able to play them. This makes casting very tricky. It is hard enough to find singing dancing actors, let alone ones who can do it all while playing the saxophone.
In addition, Swingtime Canteen is written in a very specific style. Charles Busch, the award winning playwright and famous “gender illusionist” (what a nifty new term for drag queen!) is given credit along with Linda Thorsen Bird and William Repicci for writing the book, and his whacky humor is evident throughout. Basically Swingtime Canteen is a drag show. Busch has appeared in the leading role of fading film star Marian Ames and I would not be at all surprised to hear that there have been successful productions in which all the roles were played by men. In fact I was disappointed that there wasn’t at least one gender illusionist on the stage at the Theater Barn. I think it would have helped clarify the style and humor of the piece.
A brief recap of the very brief plot. After 17 years under contract to MGM, Marian Ames (Jennylind Parris), four-time Oscar nominee and three times Ladies Home Journal Woman of the Year, is afraid that her film career is on the rocks after four flops in a row. One night when Guy Lombardo and his orchestra were waylaid at a society bar mitzvah in Albuquerque, Marian rounded up her gal pals who played instruments and formed an all-girl band to entertain at the Hollywood Canteen. They were such a hit that they were immediately booked on an overseas tour, and the action of the show takes place during their first concert of the tour at a Music Hall in London in 1944. Leggy chorine Lily McBain (Laura Benson) has stolen the fiancée of drummer Jo Sterling (Julie Brooks), formerly Marian’s stand-in on 17 films. Marian’s naïve niece, Katie Gammersflugel (Binstock), confesses that she has impulsively married a GI she known for only 12 hours and has come on the tour in the hopes of seeing him once again. Piano playing riveter Topeka Abotelli (Debbie Deane) finds the war effort a welcome break from the REAL work of raising a family. During the course of the show, which is interrupted by an air raid and various missives that could make or break the girls’ careers, there is a little drama and a lot of fabulous ‘40’s music.
As Marian, Parris is far and away the best thing on the stage. She understands the show, the role, and the humor and as a result delivers some of Busch’s funniest lines to great effect. Although I have no doubts as to her true gender, Parris managed to play the part so that I could have believed she was a man in drag. Had she whipped off that fabulous wig to reveal a crew cut I wouldn’t have blinked. Look for her delightfully campy rendition of Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In”.
The other performer who understands her role is Deane. Seeing her with her hair tied up in a red kerchief pounding the ivories underneath that famous “Rosie the Riveter” poster is a hoot. The poor sound system did Deane a disservice. She was not miked at the piano, and so she often drowned herself out.
It is a good thing I know what Binstock can do, because if this was my first sighting of her on stage I would not be impressed. She sings nicely and has good stage presence, but she fails to deliver a convincing character as Marian’s country-bumpkin niece.
Truly disastrous are the performances of Benson and Brooks. Both are just wrong, wrong, wrong, for their roles. I can see why Brooks got the role though because she a fine drummer and a strong singer. She’s cute as a button, but she can’t act and there is no way she can pass for Marian’s stand-in on the movie set. Benson isn’t blonde, isn’t a bombshell, and she can’t play the sax or the accordion. I found her acting dismal and her singing mediocre.
Also on the stage is Raymond Jung, the bass player. That’s about all that he did – sit on the stage and play the bass. He seemed quite oblivious to the fact that there was a show going on.
No one was helped by the crummy costumes provided by Stephanie Luette.
Abe Phelps did his usual fabulous job of designing and painting up the Theater Barn stage into a star spangled 1940’s band set, and Allen Phelps did a solid job with the lighting.
While I am sure Maas attempted to recreate Barry McNabb’s original choreography, the result is just a sort of ordered chaos. Particularly in the group numbers the performers aren’t capable of the kind of tightly synchronized choreography evocative of the 1940’s. The Andrews Sisters are evoked frequently in the show – there is an Andrews Sisters medley early on (completely lost because of poor sound balance) and Maxene Andrews made her last professional appearance in a cameo in the original off-Broadway production – but they are present in name only.
It is a pity that this production is such a mess. The over-the-top ‘40’s sentimentality bears a timely message for a country once again at war. I found myself thinking more than once of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of the performers who risk their lives to bring them a song, a dance, and a laugh or two.
Swingtime Canteen runs through July 10 at The Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs about two hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005