Holiday shows can run the gamut in terms of locations, characters and time periods, but History Theatre seems to have found its sweet spot with the Andrews Sisters in 1944 New York. This year’s “Christmas of Swing” marks the fourth time the theater has trotted out the Minnesota-born trio to celebrate the season against the backdrop of World War II, and it may be their brightest appearance yet.
An off-shoot of “Sisters of Swing”, which made its debut at History Theatre in 2002, “Christmas of Swing” revolves around a dress rehearsal for the Andrews Sisters’ upcoming Christmas Eve USO show. In this nostalgia-laden piece, written by Bob Beverage and Ron Peluso, signature musical numbers are enlivened with appearances by Bing Crosby, Abbott and Costello, and Danny Kaye, and counterpointed by letters and reminisces from soldiers at the front. A few tweaks this year only serve to improve its light-hearted appeal.
The strongest elements of last year’s production remain intact, namely the solid musical talents of Ruthie Baker, Stacey Lindell, and Jen Burleigh-Bentz as Patty, Maxene and LaVerne Andrews respectively. Their able harmonies, sharply delineated syncopations and sheer sense of enjoyment in the music lend their songs polished showmanship and seemingly boundless energy.
Baker, in particular, skillfully channels Patty’s infectious charm and giddy good humor, while Lindell shines in her achingly beautiful rendition of “Oh, Holy Night”. Jan Puffer’s stylish choreography and Raymond Berg’s snappy musical direction help keep the trio’s talents front and center, especially in such iconic numbers as “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”.
Bill Scharpen and Mark Rosenwinkel return in a variety of roles, but this year the ensemble is augmented by a couple of newcomers as well. Eric Heimsoth offers some lively turns as Danny Kaye, while Bryan Porter plays the Stage Manager and joins Heimsoth in portraying various GIs.
This welcome tweaking solves one of the staging issues from last season, when Scharpen and Rosenwinkel played so many roles that it was difficult to tell who each was meant to be at any given appearance. Instead they have the opportunity to focus on some key comic moments, such as a signature Abbott and Costello routine. Heimsoth nicely approximates Kaye’s adroitly daft stage presence, while Porter and Burleigh-Bentz offer up one of the show’s loveliest moments in a poignant duet treatment of “You’re All I Want for Christmas”.
Unfolding on Michael Hoover’s newly designed set, with overhead screens alternately displaying vintage photographs and advertisements for war bonds, this “Christmas of Swing” is refreshed, invigorated and ready to boogie-woogie.
Lisa Brock writes about theater.