If talent, poise and charisma were the only qualities needed to triumph in theaters of war or pleasure, then the sparkling quintet in Swingtime Canteen could claim absolute victory after crooning and hoofing their way though an Act One medley of brassy Andrews Sisters tunes. But even though the heroic performers can't overcome the weaknesses in Linda Thorson Bond, William Repicci and Charles Busch's anemic book -- a gutless smattering of one-liners and sappy anecdotes that corrode character development instead of enriching it -- director Kenneth Elliott and company imbue each Forties-era song with polish, style and panache.
All of the action takes place on a platform situated at one end of a Quonset-hut-like setting (designed by Gary L. Miller) of curved, corrugated metal walls that surround the audience area of chairs and nightclub-style tables. Patrons are greeted at the Garner Galleria Theatre's door by jumpsuited ushers and can order drinks while the show is being performed. (On opening night, theatergoers who shelled out upwards of $34 apiece to listen to gorgeous singing voices had to put up with the incessant chatter and ice-cube sloshing of a few drunken idiots.) As four hepped-up musicians clad in brownish Army uniforms take their places behind big-band-style music boxes, we're introduced to the contingent of women who've been recruited to give a concert for the Eighth U.S. Air Force stationed in London in 1944.
There's Hollywood star and canteen emcee Marian Ames (Dorothy Stanley), who diplomatically intervenes when clashing egos or personal problems threaten to torpedo the troupe's flagging morale. That's a formidable task, given that blond bombshell Lilly McBain (Joan Hess) has recently made a play for the boyfriend of the tough-talking Jo Sterling (Beth Flynn). Worse, factory riveter turned piano player Topeka Abotelli (Susan Draus) is heartbroken because she's had to leave her children in her husband's care, and Marian's starry-eyed wholesome niece, Katie Gammersflugel (Jennifer Hall), pines for a young soldier she barely knows but whom she insists is the love of her life.
Fittingly enough, Broadway veteran Stanley leads the company with a classy performance that's a mixture of sensual appeal and old-fashioned show-business verve. Assured from the moment she kicks up her heels while singing "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive," Stanley demonstrates she's just as capable of holding an audience rapt while barely moving a muscle, delivering a quietly regal version of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square." And the actress earns plenty of laughter when she straps on a pair of six-shooters and rides herd during "Don't Fence Me In," a loping ditty that the other girls jazz up by chiming in as the tune progresses.
Stanley is stunningly complemented by the leggy Hess, whose cascading tresses frame her pouty countenance in ever-flattering ways -- even when she rockets one leg over her head or pirouettes in high heels. Hardly overdone and far from cheap, Hess's silky sultriness becomes downright lovable during her no-holds-barred rendition of "Daddy." As the energetic ingenue, Hall initially seems a tad tense and overwrought. Midway through "I Don't Want to Walk Without You," though, her silvery voice rings with crystal clarity, as it does during her other torch song, "How High the Moon." In fact, as Stanley gazes appreciatively at Hall from her piano-side perch, one gets the feeling that she's communicating not just Marian's familial pride but her own professional admiration for a major up-and-coming star as well.
Local actresses Flynn and Draus (who also serves as musical director) entertain in less glamorous, though surprisingly affecting, ways. Flynn, for instance, nearly brings down the house when she plucks a dancing partner from the audience and engages him in an impromptu conversation during "Love Isn't Born, It's Made." In addition, her throaty rendition of "I'll Be Seeing You" is one of the show's highlights, as is Draus's heartfelt offering, "My Shining Hour." And the entire company waxes harmonic throughout a wondrous a cappella version of "I'll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time." They also prove themselves a formidable vocal ensemble while belting out "Thank Your Lucky Stars and Stripes" and the rousing finale, "Sing, Sing, Sing."
And rather than overcompensate for the script's shortcomings, the actresses wisely take each scene on its own (albeit shaky and contrived) terms and render truthful portrayals that are, thankfully, never forcibly sincere. The production seems more like a slicked-up cabaret act than the rough-and-ready USO show the creators evidently intended -- why doesn't this eclectic collection include tunes of faith and courage such as "White Cliffs of Dover" or "peace songs" like "God Bless America," which Kate Smith famously introduced on Armistice Day in 1938? Nonetheless, director Elliott's understated yet elegant approach lends the patchwork material a pleasing and often ennobling luster.
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