The USO Christmas Show

Local Arts Reviews

The USO Christmas Show: A Distant Radio Signal

Hyde Park Theatre,

December 20

Running Time: 1 hr, 15 min

You gotta admire their spunk. Here they are, the little staff of a little radio station in a little town in Michigan who have just been informed that the big Hollywood stars on the big USO tour can't make it to their station in time for the big holiday broadcast to the troops, so these regular Janes and Joes are gonna fill that hour of air time all by themselves, creating a show on the spot and pretending to be all the famous comedians and singers who would have performed. Not everybody would take on a challenge like that, and when a modest band tackles something so ambitious, well, that underdog spirit counts for something.

That sentiment applies to the characters in Rebecca Schwarz's The USO Christmas Show and to the company that mounted this new musical, the Silverstar Theater Group. Silverstar is a small company breaking into a musical theatre scene dominated by the high-gloss musical big boys Zachary Scott Theatre Center and Austin Musical Theatre. That by itself shows a certain pluck, but for its debut show, the company opted to go with an original piece -- an original period piece. Now, that's moxie.

The show evokes time and place with a few simple, smart touches: walls covered in red fabric and gold tinsel provide Yuletide atmosphere; sturdy wooden furniture, an antique phone, and gleaming chrome period microphones suggest the 1940s. Meredith Moseley's fashionable costumes do even more to take us back in time; outfits such as the sleek, sparkly charcoal dress worn by Leslie Hyland's Veronica or the broad-shouldered suit of Gilbert Austin's Stanley sing with Forties style.

And that style is integral to the show Silverstar is aiming for, not just in the look of the clothes and set but in the way the characters sound and act. Schwarz's radio station crew is a collection of types familiar from comedies of the day -- the irascible boss; his astute gal Friday; the slinky wiseacre; the good-hearted, good-looking ingénues; the heroine's disapproving mom -- and their brisk comic patter or wholesome romantic cooing demands to be delivered just so to give the tenor of the times. Then there's all that music they sing -- "White Christmas," "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," "As Time Goes By," and 10 others -- which ought to be rendered with the distinctive dreamy lushness or zippy swing of the era's pop hits, especially if they're being sung by the stars of the day, as the characters want their listeners to believe they are.

The performers nail that style at times, as when Leslie Hyland strikes a skeptical pose and lets fly some arch observation; it might be Ann Miller serving up that tartlet. Stevi Cavender's Jacqueline is the picture of the girl next door, sweet sincerity just beaming from her shining eyes and broad, pearly smile, disarmingly demure. In her duet with Tim Blackwood's Billy on "Baby, It's Cold Outside," she slowly loses herself in his eyes, so that when she reaches the line, "How do you do this thing to me?" she sings the question with a palpable ache, her face simultaneously blissful and perplexed. Janis Stinson has enough talent and experience that she doesn't have to reach for any style; it comes to her. When she fires a snappy comeback to her testy station head superior to remind him who's boss, it just always sounds right.

But not every member of the cast has the performing savvy to make that work, so the ambience that the show is built around fades in and out, like a distant radio signal. Just as you're settled into that Forties groove, you're jerked out of it by someone's impression of a celebrity from that decade that doesn't even come close. It might not matter if the celebrities in question lived before the 20th century, but the folks referenced here have voices that have been recorded. When impressions of them are off, the audience can tell -- especially when that audience is of an age to have lived during the time being re-created, as a significant percentage here was. The show suffers for it. (That goes for the material, too; the great radio comedian Fred Allen, famed for his biting satire, was represented with Rodney Dangerfield-style one-liners, and it weakened the show.)

So The USO Christmas Show staged by Silverstar wasn't quite the sterling success that the radio program produced by its characters was. Still, much of it was fun, and it was encouraging to see these artists taking on this challenge, building a new company, trying to create a new musical. There was real spirit there, and that counts for something.

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The USO Christmas Show, Silverstar Theater Group, Dennis Whitehead, Rebecca Schwarz, Amber Tomblin, Austin Musical Theatre, Zachary Scott Theatre Center, Meredith Moseley, Gilbert Austin, Leslie Hyland, Stevi Cavender, Tim Blackwood

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