Musical Theatre West has come up with the perfect musical for those who found last year’s Altar Boyz a bit too young and edgy for their tastes.  In fact, the highly entertaining The Andrews Brothers is the kind of show which the older you are, the more you will love.  

Written by The Marvelous Wonderettes’ Roger Bean, The Andrews Brothers is the slapstick tale of three 4F stagehands who end up taking the place of the ailing Andrews Sisters at a WWII USO concert, the kind that Bob Hope headlined throughout most of his career. That the three Andrews Brothers, Patrick, Max, and Lawrence, happen to have similar names to Patty, Maxine, and Laverne is purely coincidental…not.

Sunday’s matinee audience was filled with nostalgic 70-and-80somethings for whom every early 1940s hit was a trip down memory lane.  In fact, this sentimental journey began from the moment they took their seats. 1940s newsreel and cartoon footage depict such 1940s icons as Kate Smith (introducing a new song entitled “God Bless America”) and the three little pigs fight a swastika-wearing big bad wolf.  Even Executive Director/Producer Paul Garman’s pre-show announcements were delivered on the giant silver screen in glorious black and white.

We meet the Andrews Brothers just as USO songstress and pinup girl Peggy Jones (The Pajama Game’s Darcy Roberts) is instructing them on the fine art of dance.  We soon learn that Patrick (Larry Raben) is a stutterer with panic attacks and asthma, Max (David Engel) is a klutz with flat feet, and Lawrence (Stan Chandler) is so nearsighted that he is nearly blind without his glasses.  The boys’ dream is to be entertainers.  They couldn’t get drafted, and now they worry that they’re going to get booted out of the USO. “It’s our only chance to get on stage,” says one of them, “and we can’t blow it!

This shoestring-thin plot serves as an excuse for some Bob Hope/Bing Crosby Road To (fill in the blank) style humor and a couple dozen well-(and lesser)-known tunes. In other words, here the humor and the music are the thing.

The jokes come fast and furious. When Peggy inquires about the boys’ experience as entertainers, they reply, “We’ve performed here, there … mostly there.” Peggy is reputed to have “the chassis that made Lassie Come Home.” And just before the end of Act 1, when the boys are told that they’re going to have to don dresses and pretend to be the ailing Andrews girls, Peggy reassures them, “The men need this show.  And they’ll be far, far away.”

There are sight gags galore, many of them centered around the amusing vision of men pretending to be women.  Patrick can’t remember to keep his legs together when seated, and Max somehow ends up upside down revealing his not so girlish boxer shorts.

Songs like “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “Mairzy Doats,” “On A Slow Boat To China,” and “The Hut-Sut Song” may be familiar even to those in the audience born as late as the 1950s (who, me?). My favorite among those I’d not heard before is Eddie Cherkose and Jacques Press’ “Breathless,” a song so cleverly constructed that it indeed makes the singers … breathless.  

There’s a great audience participation segment of the show when two men are selected to join the Andrews “Sisters” and Peggy onstage for “Six Jerks In A Jeep” with one of the them at the wheel and the second in charge of the “beep beep” horn.  One of the men gets to remain on stage and dance with Peggy!

Among the musical numbers inventively staged by choreographer Roger Castellano is an amusing “Hawaiian War Chant,” with the guys wearing tambourines around their waists, grass skirts, and flowered headdresses. The best dancing is saved for Act 2, however, whem Chandler, Engel, and Rabin (three of the original Plaids of Forever Plaid fame) have donned wigs, makeup, dresses, and heels.  A standout number is the tap dancing “Plain Jane Doe,” in which Engel and Roberts are given a particularly fine opportunity to strut their Broadway tap dancing stuff.

The USO finale is grand indeed, with one 1940s song after another: “Corns For My Country,” “Any Bonds Today,” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”  And that’s not all. The Andrews Brothers return, dressed as men once again, this time in uniform, to join leggy Peggy in “Stuff Like That” and the immortal Andrews Sisters hit “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön.”

The cast couldn’t be better and superlatives are most definitely in order for Chandler, Engel, Raben, and Roberts, consummate triple threats all four, and expert comedians as well.  Nick DeGruccio has directed with his accustomed blend of talent, professionalism, and imagination. Maybe best of all is the big band sound of musical director John Glaudini and the fabulous pit band. (Musical arrangements are by Jon Newton and vocal arrangements by Roger Bean, both period perfect.)

Steven Young’s lighting and Julie Ferrin’s sound are first rate, and Debbie Robert’s period costumes are colorful recreations of the period, Peggy’s lack of 1940s shoulder pads in her Act 2 slinky black dress being the sole misstep.

The Andrews Brothers is as much a courageous choice for MTW as was last year’s Altar Boyz.  For the Boyz, it was some of the older, more conservative audience members who were less than pleased by the show’s more irreverent moments.  Here, it is the under-30s who may very well scratch their heads and wonder what the excitement is about.

Still, The Andrews Brothers is full of memorable tunes and couldn’t be better performed. Once the guys are in drag, there’s nary a dull moment. Though younger audience members may not turn out in droves, quite the opposite is certain to be true for their parents and grandparents. They will—mark my words—be in 1940s heaven!  

Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
April 20, 2008
Photos: Alysa Brennan

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