I'll Be Seeing You

This revue of World War II tunes gives new meaning to 'home for the holidays'

Arts Review

I'll Be Seeing You

Kam & James Morris Theater, through Dec. 20

Running time: 1 hr, 45 min

"There's no place like home for the holidays" had a very different feel 65 years ago. With 16 million Americans serving in the military – close to three-quarters of them overseas – just about everyone in the country felt a keen absence around the hearth.

Scarcely a parent, spouse, son, daughter, sibling, sweetheart, friend, or neighbor wasn't worried sick for some faraway soldier or soldiers and wishing desperately for their safe return to the arms of their loved ones. And those servicemen and -women themselves yearned twice as much for such a homecoming and caring embrace. So to have that desire expressed in a popular song struck a deep chord in the listeners of that day, and it spoke for an entire nation in a way that may be hard to imagine now. Fewer of us have so personal a connection to the men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and where are the songs that bind the shards of our fragmented culture into a whole?

TexARTS' homegrown revue I'll Be Seeing You: A 1940s Christmas Musical takes as part of its mission the task of stirring in us that deep national longing from the days of World War II. Woven through its hit parade of seasonal and pop standards from the Thirties and early Forties (with a few ringers from later years) are projected period photographs of men and women in uniform and families on the home front, as well as letters from both sides that are read aloud. Actors Wendy Zavaleta and Shelby Davenport serve as our guides for this backward glance, adult characters reflecting on their childhood memories of the war and reciting family correspondence. What they have to say is not all that out of the ordinary, but the earnest warmth with which they say it speaks volumes about the concerns that permeated the lives of nearly everyone in those years. It creates a backdrop of apprehension from which the revue's peppy swing numbers and dreamy ballads rise up as a sort of willful optimism, the nation's hope for that day when the war will be over, when every soldier can lay down his gun and come home.

That connection might not come through so clearly were it not for the ways in which the performers and musical elements so effectively evoke the Forties. The five singers and four dancers who carry the period numbers radiate the clean-cut, fresh-faced wholesomeness of the stars of the day, especially in the crisp period military outfits and extravagant vintage formal wear provided by costumer Robin Lewis. The singing is croonerly smooth, and in songs such as "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," "In the Mood," "Bei mir bist Du schön," and "Jingle Bells," Amanda Blalock, Leslie Hollingsworth, and Selena Rosanbalm manage to merge their voices in the signature tight harmonies of the Andrews Sisters. On the hoofin' side, Kristin Douthit, Erin Erxleben, and former Rockette Jennifer McCamish boast the high kicks and gleaming smiles of classic chorines, and whenever each is partnered with Lewis, who also choreographed and dances in the show, they execute spins, dips, and jitterbug flips with the precision of a parade ground honor guard – moves all the more impressive in the close confines of the Kam & James Morris Theater. All this works together to pull you into the past and experience the era as it was.

Fighting against that effort, unfortunately, is the sound. The system itself doesn't always show the singers to best advantage, but the larger issue is that instead of live accompaniment, the show relies on recorded musical tracks to back the singers. Too often, their canned quality bleeds through, undercutting the intimacy and personal connections fostered by the performers. That's a shame, because director Todd Dellinger, who also wrote the script and designed the set, has crafted a cozy little world in which we can journey back in time and discover a deeper sense of home.

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I'll Be Seeing You, TexARTS, Todd Dellinger, Robin Lewis, Selena Rosanbalm, Leslie Hollingsworth, Amanda Blalock, Wendy Zavaleta, Shelby Davenport

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