By Greggory Moore, Curtain Call Columnist
The Andrews brothers are 4F, meaning they can’t directly join the fight against the Axis powers. But they’ve signed up with the U.S.O. to help entertain the troops at Fort Kittylock. They’re only stagehands, but they’ve got a hankering to perform ― a chance that arises when a snafu means that pinup girl Miss Peggy Jones is short three backup singers/dancers. But can they answer the call of duty when headliners the Andrews Sisters call out sick?
That’s all the plot there is to The Andrews Brothers, Roger Bean’s jukebox musical composed of World War II-era pop hits. But you don’t come to this sort of thing for plot: it’s all about the music and the fun. So long as you’re not looking for depth on either count, International City Theatre delivers well enough ― especially if you hang in there ’til after intermission.
With his flat feet, eldest Max (Grant Hodges) is the most graceless of this trio of theatre nerds. Lawrence (Michael D’Elia) is near-sighted and has trouble memorizing lyrics. Baby of the bunch Patrick (Max DeLoach) is asthmatic and gets über nervous around women. These failings evince themselves exactly as you expect, particularly once Miss Peggy (Kelley Dorney) shows up and they start rehearsing for the big show.
Sometimes cute, sometimes cloying, you’re best off if you think of Act One as little more than the set-up for Act Two. It doesn’t help several early songs are clunkers. I’m not saying Bean doesn’t find a logic for including “Mairzy Doats” (“Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy / A kid’ll eat ivy, too ― wouldn’t you?”), but all the logic in the world doesn’t elevate this from being a terrible song. And while none of the rest are quite THAT bad, plenty ain’t good.
It’s not the fault of the performers. They sing solidly throughout, with both DeLoach and Dorney enjoying a few standout moments. The going gets challenging for Hodges here and there, but nothing tragic. The harmonies ― many of which are far from simple ― are excellent throughout. Although the backing music would be better served by a larger band with a real piano than by the four-piece with an electronic keyboard handling the duties here, at least we get it live rather than prerecorded and piped in.
Most impressive performance-wise is the acting during the songs, which each performer handles with absolute effortlessness. Director/choreographer Jamie Torcellini has thought long and hard about how to engage the audience, and he’s really put the cast through their paces.
It’s in Act Two ― which takes the form of the show the quartet prepped for in Act One ― that Torcellini’s choreography truly impresses. Opening with Miss Peggy’s solo number “Doin’ It for Defense”, Torcellini gives Dorney are sorts of little steps and gestures to fully sell the song story and double-entendre. And although some of the more obvious bits of choreography are strong (such as a very nice music-free tap duet between Dorney and Hodges), it’s the subtle stuff that tickles, such as the gestures given to the boys during “Three Little Sisters” to indicate the difference between Army, Navy, and Marines.
In addition to the fact that the songs of Act Two tend to be better (e.g., “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön”, “Rum & Coca Cola”, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”), the proceedings are just a lot more fun now that we’re in the show-within-a-show. Dorney emcees it just right, and Torcellini’s gamble on sections of extensive crowd participation pays off huge, particularly during “Six Jerks in a Jeep.” It could easily go somewhat wrong on any given night, but it’s worth the risk.
As much as I’m not charmed by drag shows and such, it would be criminal not to mention how well it works here. Torcellini and company have decided to play it straight (no pun intended), with costume designer Kim DeShazo and hair/wig designer Anthony Gagliardi (and presumably the makeup person, uncredited in the program) doing their damnedest to make the boys look like girls. The result is far more amusing than if they’d gone for the low-hanging fruit of intentionally making them poor imitations of the fairer sex.
To be sure, The Andrews Brothers is lite fare, little more than a revue of not exactly the best music the first half of the 20th century has to offer. But because of how International City Theatre executes Act Two, by the time the curtain drops you might have enjoyed yourself despite that fact.
The Andrews Brothers at International City Theatre
Times: Thurs-Sat 8:00 p.m. and Sun 2:00 p.m., The show runs through March 8
Details: (562) 436-4610, ICTLongBeach.org
Venue: Beverly O’Neill Theatre, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach