Tough acts to follow. Welk Resorts Theatre begins The Andrews Brothers with video clips from the old USO Command Performance radio shows. Bob Hope jokes with Lana Turner. Young-ish Judy Garland sings an “Over the Rainbow” that would hush a heavenly choir. Kate Smith belts “God Bless America” for the first time in public. And everyone performs with such graceful ease they’re downright eerie.
That done, the Welk raises the upstaging ante. Bets Malone comes on, in character as pinup sweetheart Peggy Jones (i.e., Betty Grable). She says we’re at a WWII USO show in the South Pacific. We ship out tomorrow. Then she asks, “How many of you served in World War II?” A man rises. Two follow. Then two women. In the end, over 20 veterans stand and receive a clamorous ovation.
How to follow that?
Undaunted, the Welk show does. Like Forever Plaid, The Andrews Brothers is a musical revue held together by the sketchiest of plots. When Laverne of the Andrews Sisters has chicken pox, the trio’s quarantined. They can’t perform their final stop of 1945. So three male stagehands, burning to strut their stuff, cross-dress as Patty, LaVerne, and Maxene. After a few “should we’s” and “dare we’s” during the first-act rehearsal, they entertain the troops with the tight boogie-woogie harmonies that made the sisters famous.
Andrews Brothers complicates the second act by having the males continue their duties as stagehands in discomforting drag. The USO show wavers between bumbling farce and shimmering style.
Purists might cavil that the first time the guys trundle onstage in high heels, they can barely walk (and even languid eyes would recognize they aren’t the genuine article). A few songs later, the men do a flawless, full tap number in five-inch spikes. We’re obviously in the presence of the far-fetched. But the can-do optimism of the USO show trumps the realist’s urge to shout, “Now hold on for a pair of minutes!”
Andrews Brothers includes a built-in demonstration of its difficulties. Bets Malone teaches shy, stuttering Patrick (played with varsity verve by understudy Jeffrey Parsons) how to handle the songs’ difficult, staccato notations. She walks through the Al Hoffman/Milton Drake novelty song “Mairzy Doats,” singing “mares eat oats, and does eat oats…” Patrick repeats it. Then she triples the tempo (“mairzydoatsanddozydoats…”). While members of the audience, myself included, do mental tongue-twists, Patrick hangs with her, and they’re ready to sing “Beat Me, Daddy, Eight to the Bar,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” and “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” with the speed, and clarity, of the originals.
Andrews Brothers won’t usurp Hamlet’s pedestal in the realms of gold. It’s about sheer, forget-your-troubles entertainment. Along with Malone and Parsons, David Engel and Johnny Bisom round out the Welk cast. Many have worked together before, and it shows. Their voices blend beautifully. Even their shenanigans are flawless.
Music director Justin Gray added two trumpeters to his ensemble. And one of them — don’t know which — gets to be the immortal “Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy (of Company B).”
Near the end of Side Man, playwright Warren Leight takes a huge risk: he squelches onstage activity. Jazz musicians play a tape of another immortal trumpeter, Clifford Brown, performing his last solo (he died in 1956, aged 25). The musicians just nod and add heartfelt “wow’s” when Brown phrasings flare pyrotechnic. The drama’s all in the ear. As one of them says, “You just listen.”
By then, however, Side Man has created such an appreciation of the all-consuming lives of jazz musicians that the solo verges on a capsule history of the form.
An unsentimental appreciation at that. Clifford (named after Brown) recalls life with his father Gene — a trumpet player as humble as he is brilliant — and mother Terry, who is driven to near madness by Gene’s inattention. Their relationship’s so dysfunctional you wonder how Clifford kept sane.
Side Man’s a risk for a brand-new company as well. The memory play spans decades as fast as Brown scales octaves. Newly formed Bang! Productions, however, has made an impressive debut. Director Scott Striegel replicates jazz musicians’ total gone devotion — like a secular religion. The cast, led by Eddie Yaroch, Amanda Cooley Davis, and Brian Mackey as the volatile family, has no weak links. And Tom Hall’s Jonesy, a one-eyed, smacked-out trombonist, is outstanding.
Credit as well to Michael McKeon’s inventive set — accordionlike walls create different playing spaces and eras — and to Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound design, a remarkable assemblage of jazz trumpet greats.
The Andrews Brothers: The New ’40s Musical, by Roger Bean
Welk Resorts Theatre, 8860 Lawrence Welk Drive, Escondido
Directed and choreographed by Nick DeGruccio and Roger Castellano; cast: Bets Malone, David Engel, Johnny Bisom, Jeffrey Parsons; set coordinator, Ryan Seybert; costumes, Debbie Roberts; lighting, Jennifer Edwards-Northover; sound, Patrick Hoyny
Playing through November 8; Sunday, Tuesday through Thursday at 1:45 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. 888-802-7469.
The Side Man, by Warren Leight
Bang! Productions, Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, University Heights
Directed by Scott Striegel; cast: Amanda Cooley Davis, Tom Hall, Brian Mackey, Don Pugh, Striegel, Jacque Wilke, Eddie Yaroch; scenic design, Michael McKeon; costumes, Jemima Dutra; lighting, Christopher Renda; sound, Matt Lescault-Wood
Playing through October 11; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-220-0097.