If you don’t like to have fun, then you absolutely must stay away from Coyote Stageworks’The Andrews Brothers, at the Palm Springs Art Museum’s Annenberg Theater. Stay home; be a curmudgeon; be a grinch—because this show might get to you. Opening night’s nearly full house at the gently raked theater found itself whooping and applauding in fits of wild enthusiasm.
Let’s discuss why.
Part of it is the music: a live band! On the stage! True, we don’t get to actually see the musicians, who are parked behind a fence so they don’t distract from the action. (Bravo to the seven-piece group; they never missed a lick, despite their not being acknowledged, or even mentioned, in the program. Why aren’t they? They are performers too, right?) Nonetheless, nothing adds excitement like the thrill of live music. A gigantic YAY to Coyote for this decision!
Yes, The Andrews Brothersis a musical, written by Roger Bean, whose credits are breathtaking. It’s set in 1945 on a Pacific island where an evening USO show is planned for “the boys.” The plot is as flimsy as that of some 1940s movies, but nobody minds. The setting for Act 1 is a military camp (with a surprising amount of scenery for a stage like the Annenberg, which has such little room backstage), and Act 2 changes to “the stage” of the show. Also in keeping with Annenberg tradition, the sound is flawless, and the face microphones all function perfectly.
Coyote Stageworks’ artistic director, Chuck Yates, opened the show at exactly 7:31 p.m., observing military promptness rather than the theatrical tradition of starting five minutes late for the tardy. After a charming little talk, he invited all the veterans to stand so we could thank them with our applause. I hope this wasn’t just an opening-night thing, because it is lovely, and it is always very affecting. Whether or not this idea was lifted from the Palm Springs Follies, I don’t care—because we can never thank our warriors enough.
So we GI-jive into the show, meeting the three USO stagehands who are planning their upcoming production. They have been assigned to this job because they are “effies,” or 4F. A lot of the humor in the play, incredibly, comes from the disabilities which kept them out of active duty; this may be hard to believe in the uber-correct 21st century, I know, but it works. Tall, slim Michael Paternostro plays Lawrence, who is helpless without his glasses. Sweet, youthful Larry Raben is Patrick, a stutterer. Crafty, bossy Jamie Torcellini is Max, and I won’t ruin the joke by revealing his problem (and it’s not what you’re thinking).
They are awaiting the arrival of Peggy—played by sweet, crisp-voiced Bets Malone—a contest winner and pin-up girl from Seattle who is nervous about launching her professional showbiz career with tonight’s presentation. All four of these actors are Equity professionals with stunning résumés, so it is no surprise when they trot out terrific vocal harmonies, fantastic footwork and knockout comedic timing. They are also awaiting the Andrews Sisters, who are scheduled to fly in and perform—but we soon find out they are not going to arrive. Horrors! Will the troops be sent off the next day without a show? Well, in the best Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland tradition of here’s-a-barn-let’s-put-on-a-show, the stagehands offer to step in as performers. Corny? Sure. Cute? Totally.
I’m not going to give away what happens, but I will report that the Hawaiian number drew actual cheers from the crowd, and the staging of the “Slow Boat to China” number was beyond clever, while the “Six Jerks in a Jeep” was inventive and adorable. Kudos to the director Nicholas DeGruccio, choreographer Roger Castellano, musical director Colin Freeman, and stage manager Jill Gold for their work. Nothing in the world is more difficult than comedy. (Remember the story of the dying actor who is asked “Tell me, is dying hard?” He snarls in reply: “Dying is easy. COMEDY is hard.”) However, this combination of perfect timing and superb craftsmanship hits a home run.
But ah, the music. You know many of the songs, from Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Billy Rose, Frank Loesser—the usual suspects. Some more-obscure tunes are thrown into the mix, giving us variety and laughs and keeping the show from wandering off into cliché.
This all gives the actors an extraordinary chance to show off. In Act 1, we see enough glimmers of their talent to acknowledge the finely honed skills of these four performers, but Act 2 really lets them cut loose. (By the way: The film clips that are run during the intermission, all from that era, are astonishing—everything from war-bond appeals, to a cartoon with a cow playing the flute in Bugs Bunny’s orchestra, to a three-little-pigs animation in which the wolf is wearing a swastika armband; I was left quite speechless!) The quality of their performances, with the beautiful sureness of their footwork and the hilarious sight gags, is wonderfully innovative. It’s two hours and 15 minutes of feel-good Broadway quality, right here in Palm Springs.
But don’t go if you don’t want to have fun.
Coyote Stageworks’The Andrews Brothersis performed at various times, Wednesday through Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 16, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive, Palm Springs. Tickets are $39 to $55. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit www.psmuseum.org/annenberg-theater.