City Theater Opens Season With Jump Jive Jukebox Musical SWINGTIME CANTEEN

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September 2018

Biddeford’s City Theater opened its 2018-19 season this weekend with a USO musical salute starring MGM movie queen Marian Ames along with her niece Katie Gammersflugel and fellow performers Jo Sterling, Topeka Abotelli and Lilly McBain in a powerful, rip-roaring, toe-tapping and emotional tribute to the “soldiers in grease-paint.”

SWINGTIME CANTEEN, written by Linda Thorsen Bond, William Repicci and Charles Busch, is a re-creation of that real-life event presented on Christmas Day 1944 to the World War II troops based in London. Billed as “Uncle Sam’s Christmas Tree” the show was recorded as part of a Coca-Cola-sponsored international radio broadcast and celebrates the military with an array of unforgettable original hits of the 40s.

The City Theater cast—the very same cast that performed the show in 2009, and again directed by Linda Sturdivant—once again does a wonderful job of bringing this sentimental production—with all its period-specific nuances, attitudes, patriotism, relationships, costuming—back to glorious life.

Lynn Boren-McKellar of Saco reprises her role as Hollywood star Marian Ames, gracious, personable and ever-name-dropping (Frances Langford, Joan Crawford, Guy Lombardo, Cole Porter, Loretta Young, Jeannette MacDonald…) celebrity with a few movie flops who might be on her way out to pasture.  She rounds up some of her musical gal pals from the Hollywood Canteen to entertain the troops as their contribution to the war effort.

Rebecca Rinaldi of Falmouth plays Jo Sterling, band leader and long-time stand-in for Miss Ames. The well-seasoned Rinaldi is a master class of theater in action, with perfect delivery of the most intense to the cheesiest schtick.  Sara Sturdivant of Haverhill, MA, is equally a natural in her role of Topeka Abotelli, the rock-solid piano player/riveter (and Music Director for the show).

Nicole Rawding of Westbrook is Lilly McBain, the sultry pin-up girl whose musical versatility is smartly convincing.  During the show, Rawding humbly reveals her expertise with saxophone, clarinet, piccolo, bass flute, banjo and guitar.  Kelsey Franklin of Oxford completes the all-girl band in the role of Katie Gammersflugel, Miss Ames’ excitable and emotional niece.

Collectively, these gals do a bang-up job of entertaining “the troops” with lots of audience interaction and stage banter that prompts laughter and tears, hope and inspiration.

But the best part of this production is the trademark jazz and pop music from the greatest generation’s hit parade list:  “Bugle Call Rag, Ac-cen-tchu-ate The Positive, Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition, Thank Your Lucky Stars And Stripes, Sentimental Journey, Sing Sing Sing, Don’t Fence Me In, I’ll Be Seeing You” and more.

Their solos are stupendous:  Boren-McKeller’s “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” and “You’ll Never Know”; Rinaldi’s “His Rocking Horse Ran Away” and “I’m Old Fashioned”; Sturdivant’s “Love Isn’t Born, It’s Made” and “My Shining Hour”; Rawding’s “Daddy” and Franklin’s “I Don’t Want To Walk Without You” and “How High The Moon.”

The “pièce de résistance” is when Boren-McKeller, Rinaldi, Sturdivant, Rawding and Franklin combine their vocal prowess for some unmatched showmanship—especially an Andrew Sisters Medley and a gorgeous sweeter-than-Adelines accapella version of “Apple Blossom Time.”

Hoppin’ and boppin’ in the stage band are Don Lauzier on trumpet, Dave Stebbins and Joshua Witham on woodwinds, Shannon Oliver on bass and Joshua Adams on percussion.  Briana Chu and Caleb Lacy shine while cutting the rug as swing dancers.

SWINGTIME CANTEEN is different than more recent jukebox musicals  that pay homage to a particular genre or artist, e.g. “Million Dollar Quartet, Heartbreak Hotel, Smokey Joe’s Café” and “Jersey Boys” which have all been presented in Maine, and all of which I had the opportunity to review.  So when the Canteen Company opened their show, I immediately sensed something different.

The energy was not in the high-tech mega-powered audio system with racks of outboard gear to enhance every frequency of music and vocals, or the computer-programmed light show with fancy effects and rapid-fire movements, or the mesmerizing projected graphics.  I was not feeling the bass drum changing my heart beat to 120 bpm.

It only took a few minutes to realize the energy of this show is in the raw transparent performances rendered by each singer and musician on stage, and presented in a most enjoyable—almost acoustically raw—setting that only the former Opera House could provide.  It was just the right amount of everything—talent, simple staging, tech reinforcement, comforting songs, sentimental music, razzle-dazzle, feel-good nostalgia and proud patriotism (“Dontcha just love the pageantry?”).

SWINGTIME CANTEEN runs through October 7th, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 PM, Sundays at 2 PM (no show on September 23rd).  City Theater is located at 205 Main St., downtown Biddeford. FMI:  www.citytheater.org or (207) 282-0849.

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–Louis Philippe

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