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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

History Theater's cheery
Christmas of Swing
invites nostalgia for a time of unity
in the face of war

Christmas of Swing
Norah Long, Ruthie Baker, Mark Rosenwinkel and
Patty Nieman

The Great American History Theatre's Christmas of Swing offers audiences an irresistible hug of nostalgia for a time when the country was united in a groundswell of patriotism behind its armed forces in World War II, a feeling so different from now, in a USA torn due to the divisive Iraq War.

The sisters in this engaging revue are the three famous Andrews Sisters, who grew up in Minneapolis. In the book by Bob Beverage, LaVerne, Maxine and Patty entertain the troops around the world with their distinctive harmonization and their flirtatious choreography, which was an innovation in 1944. With three strong singers whose infectious sense of joy on stage spreads to the audience, I succumbed to the evening's rather sweet charms.

Director Ron Peluso conjures the period, 1944, with a mix of archival World War II stills projected on the back wall of the set in Tru Rut's video design, and with newsreel voice-overs tinged with the propagandistic enthusiasm of the '40s. In a lovely detail of Montana Johnson's sound design, the audience hears the whirr of the old-fashioned newsreel's projector. Shannon Lee's costumes complete the feel of the time, with back-seamed stockings, A-line dresses and fitted jackets for the three sisters.

Set just before Christmas in 1944, around the time of the Battle of the Bulge, playwright Bob Beverage hinges his revue on a possible movie script that the sisters are considering. Much of the script comes from actual World War II letters, written from the front and filled with yearning to be home. As dimly lit soldiers speak their words, the sisters respond with song in great numbers like, "I've Got a Guy in Kalamazoo," "Scrub Me Mama, With a Boogie Beat," and "Poppa Santa Claus." The device works, and it allows room for the sisters' friends, like Bing Crosby and Abbot and Costello to come on and do amusing numbers.

Norah Long and Patty Nieman play the older sisters, Maxine and LaVerne, roles they've played in previous Andrews Sisters productions. Slender Long communicates Maxine's sense of humor and capable middle-sister role, but I thought her severe, rolled-up '40's hairdo was singularly unkind to Long's beauty. In one moving scene, Maxine sings an achingly tender "O, Holy Night" to a sick, wheelchair-bound soldier. LaVerne was the oldest and quietest sister and Nieman nicely pitches her playing to LaVerne's reserve.

Both Long and Nieman set up Patty Andrews, the youngest and liveliest sister, played by Ruthie Baker, who packs her character with energy and fun. Baker is scene-stealingly engaging as Patty; she radiates playfulness and youth and, like Nieman and Long, she's sure got the pipes for her role.

Although he's not a particularly strong singer, Bill Scharpen has the manner and grace to play a recognizable Bing Crosby. Scharpen also plays various soldiers, a mailman and Bud Abbott of Abbott and Costello. He and Mark Rosenwinkel do a funny stand-up routine as Abbott and Lou Costello, arguing over a Christmas tree. Rosenwinkel plays Maxine's husband Lou Levy, the Andrew Sister's manager, and he plays Danny Kaye and a slew of soldiers. Both men sing a knock-about "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning," and a strong "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy."

All dance with precision and a sense of joy in Jan Puffer's lively choreography. Pianist David Saffert leads musicians in on-stage accompaniment, with clarinetist Bill Nimchuk, bassist Dan Haugh and drumer Will Kemperman. In the sister's jazzy rendition of "Jingle Bells," Nimchuk does a brief solo, and I longed for him to really take hold of it and riff.

As a Christmas show, Christmas of Swing feels refreshing and topical in a time of war. It's a spirited tribute to those who go away to fight for us, and its wholesomeness in a simpler time, when the country was united, is beguiling - particularly so for older audiences.

Christmas of Swing November 13, 2004 - January 1, 2005. Thursdays 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Sundays 2:00 p.m. Other matinees and mornings, see web site. Tickets $20 - $32. The Great American History Theatre, 30, East 10th Street, Saint Paul. Tickets: 651- 292-4323. Group sales: 651-292-4320. www.historytheatre.com.


Photo: Ann Marsden



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Elizabeth Weir



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