Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Afterthoughts on "Christmas of Swing"

Dear Muse,

Several months ago I saw the History Theatre's "Christmas of Swing."  Sadly, due to a combination of the-ongoing-search-for-employment and shameful procrastination, I never got around to speaking about it ... until now. But, although the new year is well under way, and although the 2013 Christmas season is a distant memory for many, I still find several things worth mentioning about the show. To do that, let's take a few steps back to December.

Source: tcdailyplanet.net via Ariel on Pinterest

December was when I gushed about that dazzling trio, The Andrews Sisters. If you thought I was excited writing about them, you can imagine my excitement when I heard the History Theatre was putting on a musical show about them at the exact same time. So, on Dec. 15th, I went to see it. Was it everything I expected? Well ... no. In some ways, it was underwhelming, but in other ways it was a nice surprise.

How was it underwhelming?

In part, "Christmas of Swing" was underwhelming because I didn't hear all the big Andrews Sisters hits that I expected to hear  - the only ones I got were "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" at the end, and "Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar" as part of a medley. The rest were mostly Christmas songs the Girls either covered or originated ("Jing-A-Ling"; "I'd Like to Hitch a Ride with Santa Claus"; "Christmas Tree Angel"; "Sleigh Ride"; etc.). And, while I had never heard these Andrews Sisters songs before and was grateful to learn they existed ... they were pretty blah, neither life-changing nor memorable. So I could understand why Band3 turned down my invitation to come see the show with me. When it comes to Christmas songs, the Andrews Sisters' stuff is better left alone.

Another nitpick I had regarding "Christmas of Swing" was the lack of compelling plot. The whole thing was basically a musical revue of the Girls recording a Christmas show on Dec. 24, 1944, interspersed with readings of letters from GIs overseas. This resulted in serious cases of mood whiplash, as when the Girls made the transition from happy Christmas songs to letters about bodies being burned or soldiers dying from shrapnel. Such transitions made the show feel really inconsistent. Unfortunately, not even inconsistent transitions can make a weak plot compelling. 

Source: historytheatre.com via Ariel on Pinterest                                                                     Source: cherryandspoon.com via Ariel on Pinterest

Now for the good stuff. How was it a nice surprise?

Despite not enjoying the Christmas songs, I was pleasantly surprised to hear wartime classics thrown into the mix, such as "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning" and "Der Fuehrer's Face" (performed hilariously by Abbott & Costello). I was also impressed by the energy all the performers put into their roles. Ruthie Baker, Stacey Lindell and Jen Burleigh-Bentz did a wonderful job capturing the spirits of Patty, Maxene and LaVerne Andrews (respectively). Occasional appearances by Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby, Abbott & Costello and Lou Levy (the "fourth Andrews Sister") were pretty enjoyable as well. Plus, the stage looked really cool.

The photo I took of the stage, pre-show. 

But three parts of the show really struck me:
  1. Midway through the show, three of the male actors dressed up like the Girls and mimed performing "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" to the audience - playing the original Andrews Sisters recording in the background. That is, until the "real" Andrews Sisters showed up and shooed them offstage.
  2. Around intermission, the actresses broke the 4th wall, speaking directly to the audience members and encouraging them to call out the name of a WWII veteran so they could pay homage to them. The number of people that responded was positively heartwarming; many a name of a friend or family member was raised. Some of these veterans happened to be sitting right in the audience! When they stood up, the actors led everyone in a round of applause for them.
  3. During a dance number, each of the "Girls" brought a veteran/random guy up on the stage to dance with them. That was quite enchanting. 
To top it all, the best thing I took away from "Christmas of Swing" was a new interest in Glenn Miller, big-band pioneer of the 1930s and '40s.

At one point during Act I, Lou Levy came onstage to announce to the Girls that his friend Glenn Miller's plane had disappeared over the English Channel. While it was a sobering moment, it also harkened back to the beginning of the show when Patty, Maxene and LaVerne had sung a feminine rendition of Miller's "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo."  Out of all the non-Christmas songs that the musical showcased, I liked that one the best. Having discovered that Glenn Miller's songs are actually good, I am embarked on a continuing journey to learn more about his music.

My conclusion? Maybe "Christmas of Swing" didn't provide a great overall repertoire to listen to. But it was a pretty good show, with good staging, good actors and good homage to WWII veterans and Glenn Miller. And I'll always appreciate it for introducing me to an additional, catchy, non-Christmas Andrews Sisters song I can share with you. Listen to the video below and see what you think. If you want to read a more flattering/neutral review of the show, check out Renee Valois' article or Cherry and Spoon's blog post.

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