Everything about the National World War II Museum’s Stage Door Canteen’s “The Andrews Brothers” glows internally.
Lit and costumed like a Norman Rockwell propaganda painting, creator Roger Bean’s Pacific pastoral of song and dance seamlessly glides from one familiar Andrews Sisters number to another and rewards patrons with the high standards that director Victoria Reed has made commonplace.
Reed and her choreographer, Ford Haueser, move their audience through the music with a series of pratfalls, swing dances and tap numbers with such celerity that, were it not for the intermission, the two-hour length would seem impossible.
It’s a bit of a slow boat to get going, and the plot has less gravitas than a gentle island wind. However, by the time they arrive at tunes like “Hula Ba Luau,” audiences will be too busy marveling at the quality of performers to worry about how they got there.
The story begins on an embarkation island at the height of the Pacific war. The troops ship out for combat tomorrow, and the USO’s headlining Andrews Sisters are quarantined. What are three nervous-wreck stage managers and a plucky pin-up girl to do?
They accentuate the positive.
Armed with a songbook of the sisters’ most popular tunes and dressed from the heels up in drag, stagehands Max, Lawrence and Patrick combine their desire to give more to the war effort with the old show-must-go-on adage so as to send the boys off in grand style.
Aided and inspired by second-billed Peggy Jones’ “Rosie the Riveter” attitude, the three USO wannabes overcome flat feet, nearsightedness and stuttering anxieties to convince an audience full of hes that the performers are in fact shes.
The four actors of “The Andrews Brothers” possess the requisite arsenal of skills to take us back to a form that prided itself on the illusion of innocence. Each has a voice and presence that is above and beyond the usual call of duty in these parts.
Their ensemble work in the numbers such as “Breathless” and “Six Jerks in a Jeep” are the highlights of the show. The latter is both a crowd pleaser and potential cringe-inducer, depending on where you’re sitting.
Don’t blame me; you’ve been warned.
As the leader of the group, Max, Brian Paul Falgoust brings the drive of an over-eager corporal and the comic klutziness of a first-rate vaudevillian. Rich Arnold, as the nearsighted Lawrence, executes the most difficult technical acting assignment of the evening by successfully navigating a series of prop gags while keeping tune and time with his compatriots.
And Clint Johnson and Courtney Boe spark a terrific budding romance as the nervous Patrick and the forever-hopeful Peggy. Johnson’s compact poise is tailor-made for the time period, and with her striking features, Boe is equally reminiscent of a Hollywood style of yesteryear.
Their early duo work on “Mairzy Doats” adds a lovely, romantic wrinkle to an otherwise exposition-heavy opening frame.
Calling little attention to herself, Reed, who is also the entertainment director of the Stage Door Canteen, has become responsible for one of the few sure theatrical bets in town.
While other producers put themselves front and center, Reed has quietly gone about the business of presenting first-rate theatrical offerings that would be cause for celebration not just in New Orleans but nationally as well.
The next step in these increasingly sophisticated evenings might be to deepen the palette just a tad. I don’t think the shows need to be darker or filled with the horror of what existed outside the world of the USO, but stronger plots and more complex characters might illuminate the import many of the songs had for the people of those times.
Nostalgia too often can be a wonderful memory of something that never happened. Great mainstream entertainment often moves the most when connected to the tangible realities of its times.
If Reed can do that, it won’t be long before she has created something that still eludes the city: a destination theater.
Until then, we’ll just have to continue to enjoy sharp, buoyant evenings of music and smiles.
I am willing to settle for that.