Quote of the Day: The Andrews Sisters hold a singular place among the many famous Minnesota-born musical talents who have made it big… Rising to fame in the swing era of the late 1930’s, they developed their successful close-harmony formula early on. The trio recorded more than six hundred songs, sold over ninety million records, earned fifteen gold records, and had a dozen number-one hits. Forty-six of their songs made it to the Top Ten chart – more than Elvis Presley or The Beatles. (info from the Playbill for Christmas of Swing at the History Theater.)
We were treated to a trip back in time at the History Theater in St. Paul, MN on Saturday night for their wonderful production of Christmas of Swing, a USO inspired show by Minnesota’s beloved trio The Andrews Sisters. Jen Burleigh-Bentz returns to the History Theater to reprise her role as LaVerne, the red-headed eldest Andrews sister who sang contralto. Julia Ennen plays Maxene, the brunette who sang Soprano. Elena Glass plays the youngest of the sisters, the lead singer. Although, they each had solo moments in this production, as well as songs and solos from various other cast members. Julia Ennen soloing on O, Holy Night to close Act I was mesmerizing.
Max Wojtanowicz portrays a charming Bing Crosby with his own gorgeous vocals, Christmas in Killarney, Mele Kalikimaka, and Toyland Medley with the Andrews Sisters. We get an appearance from Abbot & Costello (Tom Reed & Brendan Nelson Finn). Kevin Brown, Jr. plays various roles including Tuskegee Airman Harold Brown, and singing a joyful duet with Peyton Dixon of Straighten Up and Fly Right.
The premise of the show has the Andrews Sisters getting ready to perform for the troops at home. They’ve sent out a call for letters from soldiers to their loved ones back home. Their manager Lou Levy (Ryan London Levin) is opposed to them reading the letters during the show, stating that they might be too depressing. After all, their purpose is to uplift spirits, not remind people of the horrors of war. Still, the women persist. Throughout the show, we hear them, and the soldiers, read these letters. The stories are of real people who fought during WWII. The story of Tuskegee Airman Harold Brown is especially memorable. The real Harold Brown visited rehearsal and spoke with the cast. You can watch an interview with him, Artistic Director Ron Peluso, Artistic Associate Laurie Flannagan-Hegge, and actor Kevin Brown on their website, under Making a Scene. It’s fascinating. Airman Brown is a fantastic storyteller.
The History Theater made a very conscious choice to include stories from many groups of Minnesotans. Kevin Brown, Jr. said in the interview that it felt great to be part of sharing stories of American history, Minnesota history, African-American history, and more. We heard stories from people of various backgrounds, including Donald (Thomas Draskovic) a member of the Band of Ojibwe, and even learned how to say “Blueberry pie” in Ojibwe. Well, at least we heard the long word, and did about as well at resaying it as his non-Ojibwe comrad! Deryk Hak plays medic Minoru Masuda who mentions family that are in an Internment camp in California. Allison Vincent plays a WASP. They could certainly expand more on the stories of WASPs, WACs, WAVES and Army nurses, but that would be another whole play! So many stories. So many contributions from men and women of all races and backgrounds.
We expected the songs to be great. And, they were. We were also impressed with the stories of those who fought in the war. We were touched by the heartfelt sentiment and longing for home and peace. You can’t gloss over it. War is Hell. The USO shows gave many soldiers hope and a reprieve from the harsh conditions and battles. They gave them a glimpse of normalcy and home through the comedy of Bob Hope, the croonings of Bing Crosby, and the gorgeous harmonies of three beautiful and talented sisters who understood the power of music to connect, inspire, and heal.
A four-member band performs on stage during the show. David Lohman is Music Conductor, Arranger, and piano, who also gets a few interactions with the cast. Shannon Van Der Reck plays bass. Will Kemperman is on percussion. And, Stephanie Wieseler plays all the reed instruments! The teenage girls who accompanied me to this show were quite impressed! They played so many favorites from the holidays, the 1940’s era, and included the Andrews Sister’s signature song, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, which the crowd loved! They clapped along and rose for a standing ovation. As the play concluded, they sang one more song, American Anthem, tribute to the Veterans of WWII, and had a slide show of all the photos that people contributed of their loved ones who served in the armed forces. It was quite moving.
You can see Christmas of Swing at the History Theater in St. Paul, MN through December 19, 2021.
Go. Create. Inspire!
Journalging Prompt: Do you have war stories from family members, yourself, or close friends or neighbors? Watching this show, and the interview with Airman Brown, reminded me of the importance of sharing stories and writing them down, or recording them.