In Farmers Alley’s crowd-pleasing, high-energy production of 1940s-era musical revue The Andrews Brothers, straight men dress up as women, white Americans dress up as indigenous Pacific Islanders, and a middle-aged woman dresses up as an ingenue.
Everybody on stage is in drag of one variety or another most of the time, and with nary a nod toward queerness or self-critique. Regardless of how unbelievable or offensive it is, the audience eats it up.
This is likely because those in the seats largely know what they’re getting into with this World War II era screwball comedy, buoyed by popular pop, swing, big band, and boogie-woogie tunes made famous at the time by close-harmony groups such as The Andrews Sisters. (“Rosie the Riveter,” “Mairzy Doats,” “Cuanto Le Gusta,” “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” among the most recognizable of the 29 numbers in this show.)
Not only that, but their nostalgia for the supposed innocence and patriotism of those celebrated USO shows comes to life here with gusto and great panache with excellent direction, performances and technical elements.
As is the case with any jukebox musical, the plot is thin at best. Three stagehand brothers working the USO shows at a military base in the South Pacific in 1945 are each 4-F for one non-life threatening reason or another, and though they long to be military, they also long to get on stage. When America’s sweetheart and an apple farmer’s daughter from Seattle, Peggy the Pin-Up GIrl, shows up to open a show for The Andrews Sisters, they’re all starstruck and charmed by her. Then, however, they receive word that The Andrews Sisters are quarantined with chicken pox, and instead of cancelling the show as instructed, the Andrews Brothers dress as women and do the show as The Andrews Sisters.
“Just add a little wiggle to your walk and let Max Factor do the rest,” Peggy tells the boys.
What ensues is a lively, genuinely funny, cute and entertaining song-and-dance show full of physical comedy and laugh-out-loud moments from the very talented and committed cast of four supported by a marvelous live orchestra.
The musicians are tucked away on stage behind the glittery palm tree cut outs and moving trunks that work beautifully as malleable and movable set pieces, allowing for quick, tight transitions, and the creation of various spaces and places, including a dinghy, a plane and a jeep. The clever set by W. Douglas Blickle is accentuated by warm and colorful lighting by Jason Frink.
Equally effective in helping create the time and place are the fun military-inspired and period costumes by Sarah Maurer and Lisa Hartridge; Steve Hodges’ excellent wigs; and inventive and useful props by Garrett Gagnon.
But the stars of this show are, indeed, its stars. Deneen Mulay’s Peggy is full of sweet charm and youthful energy, her singing and dancing are consistently strong and lovely, and she really milks it for sexy cuteness in numbers such as “Stuff Like That There.”
Jeffrey Scott Parsons is a warm and likable Patrick/Patty, who is convincingly nervous and shy, and comes out of his shell with great timing. He’s also responsible for the terrific, playful choreography, including an especially impressive tap number — as well as the most beautiful legs on stage.
Paul Castree is a quick and sassy Max/Maxene, a great dancer, and quite skilled at improv, exhibited during highlight moments of bringing audience members onto the stage. He cleans up well as a woman and deserves credit for some nearly literal balls-out moments of physical comedy.
But no one gives his/her all quite like Jeremy Koch as an hysterical Lawrence/LaVerne whose nearsightedness kept him out of the Air Force and makes him nearly knock himself out walking into things and unable to accurately read his own cue cards. He’s a natural screwball comedian and an utter delight to watch.
Together, this tight little ensemble under Larry Raben’s thoughtful direction, in conjunction with a gifted design crew and excellent musicians (directed by Marie McColley Kerstetter), creates wonderful harmonies, hilarious moments, and a place and time for whom many feel a longing nostalgia.
The Andrews Brothers
Farmers Alley Theatre
221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo