History Theatre's "Christmas of Swing" opens with a bang: screaming jets, wailing sirens, the staccato of gunfire, all against a shifting backdrop of war footage. Then, as suddenly as it starts, this brief bedlam of noise segues into the catchy rhythms of swing music and the scene shifts from the theater of war to a different theater entirely. It's Christmas Eve in 1944 New York, and the Andrews Sisters are launched into "Jing-A-Ling, Jing-A-Ling" as they prepare to entertain the troops.
Over the next two hours, Ruthie Baker as Patty, Stacey Lindell as Maxene, and Jen Burleigh-Bentz as LaVerne dash through a whopping 36 songs and dance routines that will be familiar to Andrews Sisters' aficionados. The three acquit themselves beautifully, recreating the trio's signature harmonies and infusing the music with wit and energy, particularly in their interpretation of such standards as "Shoo-Shoo Baby" and "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy". They're accompanied by a snappy quartet, led by musical director Raymond Berg in the role of Vic Shoen, the arranger and conductor who worked with the sisters for much of their career.
Bill Scharpen and Mark Rosenwinkel playing a variety of other roles in the show. Scharpen does a credible job as Bing Crosby, and the two offer a comic routine as Bud Abbott and Lou Costello spoofing Hitler and Eleanor Roosevelt that cleverly conjures the flavor of the time period. Rosenwinkel's turn as Abbott reciting a twisted version of "The Night Before Christmas," complete with "Eight drunken reindeer caught in a tree," is equally indicative of this famous straight man's style. Less successful is Rosenwinkel's portrayal of Danny Kaye; he captures all of the performer's hyperkinesia, but less of his wry charm.
"Christmas of Swing" can stand on its own as a musical revue, but writers Bob Beverage and Ron Peluso have added a narrative device that has the sisters read letters sent to them by the families of soldiers serving in the war. Rosenwinkel, as Maxene's husband and the sisters' manager, Lou Levy, initially objects to including them, worried that they will slow the show's tempo, but he's overridden, and these snapshots from the front are sprinkled throughout the production. The juxtaposition works for the most part, although the repetition at one point of a particularly horrific war story counterpointed by Lindell's lovely rendition of "O Holy Night" feels heavy-handed and jarring.
Aside from this ill-considered dark moment, "Christmas of Swing" fulfills its mission well of offering up a nostalgic, warm-hearted nod to one of America's finest trios and recreating the period flavor of their music while emphasizing its timeless appeal.
Lisa Brock writes regularly about theater.