Tuesday, November 23, 2021

"Christmas of Swing" at History Theatre

#TCTheater loves its holiday* shows, and my very first this year (not counting Annie, which is holiday-adjacent) is History Theatre's remount of their original musical Christmas of Swing, which I first saw in 2013. They've updated it this year to reflect the greater diversity of soldiers who served in WWII, making it more poignant and powerful than ever. But it's still highly entertaining, featuring Minnesota's own original girl group The Andrews Sisters, singing WWII era songs both Christmassy and not. The large and talented cast does a wonderful job of bringing this music and these heart-warming and heart-breaking stories of WWII soldiers to life.

The show unfolds in real time as LaVerne, Patty, and Maxene are rehearsing for a USO concert on Christmas Eve, 1944. They have put out a call for letters from soldiers overseas, and are planning to read them during the show (of which their manager/Maxene's husband Lou needs to be convinced). We watch as they rehearse 1940s hits and Christmas songs, and are joined by their friends Bing Crosby and comedy duo Abbott and Costello. Between songs they read the letters aloud to each other, and the letters come to life as ensemble members personify them. We learn about the hardships and triumphs of soldiers fighting for their country, even when their families back home are forced to live in an internment camp or on a reservation, aren't allowed to vote, or face discrimination. The sisters begin to feel disheartened, thinking there's nothing they can do to help the soldiers, because all they can do is sing. But what they begin to realize is that singing does help; art can entertain us, make us forget the hardships, help us process emotions, and share the stories of those whose stories wouldn't otherwise be heard. The Andrews Sisters, and this show, do just that.

Jen Burleigh-Bentz, Julia Ennen, and Elena Glass
(photo by Rick Spaulding)
Christmas of Swing features an all-star cast, as well as upcoming young artists. Jen Burleigh-Bentz, Elena Glass, and Julia Ennen wonderfully portray the sisters as distinct personalities and a cohesive group, with dreamy three-part harmony. The rest of the ensemble play soldiers and featured characters, including Max Wojtanowicz as Bing Crosby warmly singing those Bing classics, Tom Reed and Brendan Nelson Finn yukking it up as Abbott and Costello, Kevin Brown Jr. and Peyton Dixon as Tuskegee airmen, Thomas Draskovic as an Ojibwe code talker, Deryck Hak as a Japanese American soldier, Ryan London Levin as Lou, Adan Varela as a Latino paratrooper, and Allison Vincent as the no-nonsense stage manager and a female pilot. This is a great ensemble piece in which everyone works well together, and gets a chance to shine. Even music director David Lohman and the band get to be part of the show.

The expansive set features a Christmas tree, lots of USO/America banners and decorations, and a balcony on which the soldiers frequently appear. Images and video are projected on the curtains behind it, including a finale montage of photos of real WWII vets submitted by audience members (which sadly wasn't working the day I attended). The costumes range from the sisters' '40s-era dresses to authentic army uniforms. The two dozen or so songs, mostly familiar, sound fantastic and are accompanied by sharp and fun choreography. (Scenic design by Nicole DelPizzo, costume design by Kathy Kohl, choreography by Jan Puffer.)

Christmas of Swing is an entertaining show with that great '40s sound, that also honors the diverse women and men who fought in WWII and "gave their best" to America (as the final song says), even when America gave its worst to them and their families back home. Maybe we're so nostalgic for this era because during WWII there was a clear and common enemy, and we all joined together to fight against evil, which seems so far away from the complicated and divided present.