By John Quinn
Each era has its “pop” music. For the years that included World War II, the music was swing and its impish offspring, boogie-woogie. And 70 years ago, few acts could match The Andrews Sisters. Their razor-sharp close harmony was the benchmark for performance in their genre. Swing music has not lost its charm; the up-beat, syncopated melodies, backed by a brassy orchestra, are still infectious. It is a pleasure, then, to experience Meadow Brook Theatre’s latest musical, featuring tunes of those times – but with a gender-bending twist.
“The Andrews Brothers,” was created by Roger Bean – who’s also responsible for “Life Could Be a Dream,” last season’s jukebox musical. And what, pray tell, is a “jukebox musical?” Take a selection of musical numbers that are related by era, composer, artist or theme; and write a plot that is barely strong enough to support the score. Voila! Your very own jukebox musical! Bean is the guiding hand of a number of examples – not only the above referenced “Dream,” but “Route 66” and the ever-popular “The Marvelous Wonderettes.”
It’s 1945, and the United Service Organizations (USO) has sent a touring show to military bases in the South Pacific. While LaVerne, Maxine and Patty top the bill, joining them for a performance at Fort Kittylock is a perky pin-up girl, Peggy Jones (Allison Hunt). She arrives to meet three hapless back stage guys who really want to be front and center. They are Max Andrews (Joe Lehman), Patrick Andrews (Lucas Wells) and Lawrence Andrews (Ben Garrett) – yes, they are the Andrews brothers. The guys hope this is their big break into show biz and pass themselves off as Peggy’s back-up singers. But bad news arrives: The Andrews Sisters can’t clear quarantine – something about chickenpox. In the great tradition of “the show must go on,” Peggy suggests the brothers impersonate the sisters. But can the Andrews sing and dance in ankle strap pumps and still keep their stocking seams straight?
The outrageously silly plot suits its purpose – giving context to 25 solid swing tunes, many made famous by The Andrews Sisters. Included are the iconic “Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” which is still a staple of pop artists, notably Bette Midler. In addition: For jukebox musicals, “The Andrews Brothers” has a script that is a cut above the rest. The tune-filled first act is well constructed to set up the zany, slapstick USO show that is the second act. The Andrews would prefer to be in the military, but each has a physical condition – poor vision, flat feet, asthma – that renders him 4F, “not qualified for service.” What seems like superficial character traits become running gags once the boys hit the stage.
The voices are uniformly strong, the close harmony is pitch perfect. The music and vocal arrangements are not the ’40s originals, but close enough to allow three tenors to recreate the remarkable possibilities of contralto, soprano and mezzo.
Hunt, as the only lady among the gents, would stand out anyway, but her vocals are outstanding, too. She captures a performance style immediately identifiable with the war years, which is an aural cue to the show’s context. Musical director Daniel Feyer shows yet again that he doesn’t need a big band to play Big Band splendidly.
“The Andrews Brothers” is a boisterous farce, and director Travis W. Walter unabashedly tosses in gag after gag. That’s not to say that a lot of the comedy doesn’t derive from fleeting expressions and miming by the flexible cast, as their characters are increasingly daunted by yet continue to rise to the occasion.
Also of note are the efficient rolling set pieces that make for seamless scene changes, courtesy of designer Jen Price Fick, and a breezy lighting design by Reid G. Johnson. Corey Globke’s attractive costumes are deceptively simple, but are just the type of outfits that allow for quick changes, whether in a theater or on the road. The trio’s second act costumes are a pastel rendering of the military cut skirts, ties and caps the sisters wore to introduce “Bugle Boy” in the Abbot and Costello film “Buck Privates.” That’s a nice touch.
The sad fact is that the Greatest Generation is leaving us. The kids who fought for our freedoms, whether on the battle fields, in the factories or even in the Hollywood Canteen and USO, who experienced swing first hand, are fewer every day. It’s hard to sell a show like “The Andrews Brothers” on nostalgia alone. But this production proves the cream of the crop never sours, and the music can win over another generation – even if it’s only heard through iPods.
‘The Andrews Brothers’
Meadow Brook Theatre, 2200 N. Squirrel Road, Rochester. Wednesday-Sunday through May 18. 2 hours. $25-40. 248-370-2030. http://www.mbtheatre.com