Chico Cabaret waxes nostalgic with its Swingtime Canteen
Last Friday evening Chico Cabaret presented its first show of the 2002 season, Swingtime Canteen. The show serves as an enjoyable excuse to hear some great ‘30s and ‘40s standards performed by superb singers, watch some crazy-legged jitterbugging by three dancing couples, and drift back in time on the fine music provided by a crack crew of seasoned musicians.
The basic story, such as it is, follows five “third-string” performers, all women. A couple of the gals have appeared in movies and entertain a kind of minor notoriety. Two of the women are talented nobodies dragged in to complete the act, and one of the “stars” has included her young but gifted niece as well. The setting is London, England. A “canteen” has just been set up in the city, and the five women see this show—about to be broadcast back home to the States—as a stepping stone toward performing for troops on the front in Europe and possible stardom.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, America geared up for war on a worldwide scale, and the entertainment industry felt compelled to do its bit for the effort. A “canteen,” basically a nightclub populated with movie and music stars gathered to boost the morale of young soldiers about to ship off for the European or South Pacific theater, was formed in New York. It proved so successful that another was created in Hollywood; this one proved even more successful, due undoubtedly to its proximity to the wellspring of America’s subconscious images of itself, the motion picture industry. Soldiers could schmooze with Clark Gable (before he enlisted, of course) or dance with Rita Hayworth (and this is one of those rare occasions when I am genuinely envious of the past!).
Chico Cabaret captures pretty well what it must have felt like back in those “divinely desperate days.” The soldiers jitterbugging with their dates like mad, performing a kind of exorcism rite for their fears; the big bands driven by “jungle” drums provided by the likes of Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich; and the female singers supplying some warmth, some humor and some much needed sex appeal to remind the boys, as Bob Hope put it, of “what they’re really fighting for"—all of these elements are present and largely successful in this production.
As third-string name-dropping actress Marian Ames, Pam Thornton does a great job. The character seems undeterred by her lack of sufficient notoriety, and Thornton plays the “I know but I don’t know” angle pretty effectively. She also possesses a decent set of pipes, turning in a very enjoyable rendition of “Berkeley Square.”
Other standout performances included Katie Babb’s beautiful take on “How High the Moon,” Crystal Szymanski’s humorous “His Rocking Horse Ran Away,” funny girl Debbie DiPasqua’s “I’ll Be Seeing You,” and vamp Sandy Graham’s “Pack Up Your Troubles.” Each of the women also demonstrated a knack for comedic timing, and their movement during the choreographed bits was fairly fluid.
Director Brian Holderman has done a good job with his blocking and casting, and the band—featuring trumpeters Mary and Mike Rossetti, sax man Mike Newman, upright bassist Mike Ditrolio, pianist/music arranger Nancy Svec and drummer Marcel Daguerre—is generally terrific. The theater itself has been jazzed up with new carpeting, tiered seating for better viewing, sound and lights, and, I’m assured, the Guzzetti prepared tri-tip is delicious. It’s a fun little show and a great way to bask in the enveloping glow of desperate but shared "good times."