2004 Season - “Swingtime Canteen”

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From: Newsday Long Island | Suffolk Edition


Swinging back through the 1940s

Jeremy Caplan is a freelance writer.

June 21, 2004

The string of 20-some songs in "Swingtime Canteen" are linked about as closely as the dishes at a holiday potluck: They share a common theme, but one has little to do with the next. The storyline is flimsy and the characters caricatured, but for those who seek out the music alone, it boasts a satisfying assortment of 1940s Americana.

The play originally was titled "Home Fires." Later it was adapted by Charles Busch and others and ran for some 300 performances Off-Broadway in the mid-1990s. Early in the action, the leading actresses deliver doughnuts to the audience and recruit a volunteer dancer from the crowd. Their playful friendliness draws in spectators for whom the 1940s may seem a distant era.

The setting is 1944 London, where over-the-hill film star Marian Ames has brought an all-girl band to inspire the soldiers. Dancers intermittently interrupt the stream of schmaltzy tunes ("I'll Be Seeing You," "How High the Moon" and such) with nicely choreographed steps. But the focus of the show is four crooners, each with character flaws that are predictably repaired by the end - but not before they sing a medley of Andrews Sisters hits. Fortunately, their singing is stronger than the premise.

They are accompanied by a solid three-piece band: Mikki Ryan on reeds, Maria Vassallo on trumpet and Catherine O'Malley on bass. Music director and pianist Phyllis Gessler also plays Topeka Abotelli, a Janet Reno lookalike who sings one of the many random songs stuck into the show, "His Rocking Horse Ran Away," about a troublesome child.

Gessler's keyboard accompaniment weighs down the performance at times, both because her eyes are glued to the music and because piano doesn't seem to be her forte. The wavering spotlight also is an occasional problem.

Marian (Alice Vienneau), eager to salvage her fading reputation, sings the night's first big song, "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" with a suitably warm, edgy voice. Toward the end of the act, she returns to fine form, offering "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" with plaintive passion.

The strongest performances come from Sarah Stiles as Marian's nervous niece Katie Gammersflugel, and Leenya Rideout as fiddling sexpot Lilly McBain. Stiles drops her girlish naivete as she sings the lovelorn "I Don't Want to Walk Without You" to her far-off sweetheart. Rideout exhibits a surprising proficiency on the violin as well as a strong, full voice.

Those of us accustomed to wincing when nonviolinists scratch at strings for cinematic or theatrical effect know how hard it is to find a talented singer-actor who can actually play the instrument. Rideout does so with flair and finesse. Her song "Daddy" is a J.Lo-esque paean to sugar-daddy generosity and the never-failing power of sex appeal.

SWINGTIME CANTEEN. Through July 3 at Gateway Playhouse, 215 S. Country Rd., Bellport. Directed by Barry McNabb, choreography by William B. Hubert II. For tickets, call 631-286-0555.

Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.

Southampton Press, June 24, 2004.

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