Reviews
Swingtime Canteen


TIME MAGAZINE, SEPTEMBER 4, 1995


Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive
War is hell, but the music is breezy in Swingtime Canteen


By
RICHARD CORLISS

Fifty years from now, will anyone be singing those fabulous songs from the Gulf War?  Oh, that’s right, there weren’t any.  And we’d guess that few families gather round the piano to sing of the invasions of Grenada and Panama.  Vietnam is pretty much an angry face-off between Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler (The Ballad of the Green Berets) and Country Joe & the Fish (I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag).  The Korean War has a memorial now, but still no memorable songs. It’s as if, after World War II, Americans decided that internationally sanctioned slaughter was no longer something to sing about.

Ah, but WWII!  The Good War. The war.  The bigger, better sequel to the War to End All Wars.  With a unified national will to defeat the Axis, and Broadway, Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley operating at full throttle, every G.I. could hit the beach with a song in his backpack.  Terrific songs, many of them.  They still sound swell today, and they even look good on the bandbox stage of Manhattan’s Blue  Angel Supper Club in a larkish but poignant revue called Swingtime Canteen, directed by Kenneth Elliott.

It’s London, 1944.  Marian Ames, the ever-so-gracefully-aging screen queen, is fronting an all-girl band to entertain the Eighth Air Force with tunes that spotlight some of the era’s premier lyricists.  They play Frank Loesser’s Love Isn’t Born, It’s Made;  Johnny Burke’s Thank Your Lucky Stars and Stripes and His Rocking Horse Ran Away; Don Raye’s Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, Rhumboogie and Beat Me, Daddy, Eight to the Bar.  As in any creative assembly, there are spells of emotional fireworks.  But the ladies play and sing handsomely, even during an air raid, and especially when remembering their beaux back home.

Driven by the top musical salesmanship of perky Marcy McGuigan, tomboyish Debra Barsha, sassy Jackie Sanders and little-girl-lost Emily Loesser (Frank’s daughter), this band echoes Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopators, the outfit Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis joined in Some Like It Hot.  Appropriately, Charles Busch, the off-Broadway drag star who co-authored Swingtime’s mint-thin book (with Linda Thorsen Bond and William Repicci), is now playing Marian. 

As a singer, Busch is a dynamite actress.  To the task he brings a heroic vibrato and a trouper’s frozen wide-screen smile.   Imagine Tallulah Bankhead working the low notes and Shirley Temple the high ones on the Johnny Mercer-Harold Arlen Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive, and you have an idea of the suave campery at which Busch excels.

But Swingtime Canteen is not an excuse for a drag show.  It is an evocative balancing act of music and comedy, parody and sentiment.  The girls strut their tight harmonies with an Andrews Sisters medley – 12 songs! – that’s a wowser.  And they escalate into feeling with I’ll Be Seeing You.  This gorgeous rendition works as a reminder of what the boys were fighting for, and what any struggle – war in the ‘40s, AIDS in the ‘90s – means to the combatants: pain and loss, and a sweet, frail hope.


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