QUESTION: When is a play not a play?
ANSWER: When it’s a concert.
Plays, generally speaking, have plots.
And concerts, generally speaking, um . . . don’t.
That’s the argument some have made against the rise (and strange popularity) of so-called “jukebox musicals,” the cutely coined nickname for stage shows consisting primarily of a catalog of songs from a specific artist, time period, or style. With little or no story to hold the “play” together, the songs carry the weight of the piece, each tune sung by a troupe of thinly drawn characters who interact as little as possible.
In other words, it’s a concert.
Now, to be sure, there are some juke box musicals.
‘Jersey Boys,’ ‘The Boy from Oz,’ ‘Return to the Forbidden Planet,’ ‘Always, Patsy Cline.’
The good ones do tend to have plots (more or less), along with actual characters (more or less). ‘Rock of Ages,’ for example, employs classic heavy metal songs from the 80s in telling a silly but solid story about the power of heavy metal music from the 80s. The story: a couple of wanna-be rockers and a couple of burned-out club owners band together to save a historic concert hall from evil developers who want to tear it down.
Sound good? Santa Rosa’s ‘Summer Repertory Theater‘ will be staging ‘Rock of Ages’ this summer.
Less effective as a story, but still genuinely beloved, is “Forever Plaid,” in which a lovable quartet of dead singers—who tragically died on the way to what might have been their big breakthrough concert—finally get a chance, in the afterlife, to put on the show the world never had a chance to see. And that’s what they do. They sing a bunch of popular harmony songs from the 50s. And it makes them very happy.
And that’s the plot.
And people love it.
For the record, 6th Street Playhouse will be staging ‘Forever Plaid’ this June.
Now, by any definition of theatrical excellence, these shows clearly fall short of the mark. And yet, people love them.
Well, they love some of them.
No one loved ‘Motown: The Musical,” ‘Leader of the Pack,” or that one with all the disco songs, the one no one remembers the name of anymore.
They were bad. ‘Beatlemania,’ I would argue, was bad too, but at least it had Beatles music in it, and Beatle’s music makes people feel stuff, so at the time, people were tricked into thinking ‘Beatlemania’ was better than it was.
Perhaps that’s why so many enjoy jukebox musicals even when they aren’t particularly good jukebox musicals. It’s what makes it possible for an audience to sit there watching a concert and walk away thinking they just watched a play. When it works, it’s masterful bait-and-switch, a bit of clever theatrical prestidigitation in which the audience is first promised the emotional ride of a satisfying story, but is then served little more than a series of affectively strong emotional hits, supplied by the nostalgic reaction those audience members have to a string of familiar pop tunes they remember fondly.
They look at “actors'” in costumes, they listen to some songs, and they feel stuff.
Which is what every good play should do.
So . . . wait. I can’t remember if I’m pro-jukebox musicals or anti-jukebox musicals.
But I am am pro emotion.
And I enjoy watching characters I care about, even if all they do is sing.
Which brings me to ‘The Andrews Brothers,’ now running at the Lucky Penny Community Arts Center in Napa. It’s problematic because it technically fails at telling much of a story, and yet—at Lucky Penny, anyway—it still works. In fact, it works so well that in the second act, I had one of those smile-till-my-face-hurts kinds of reactions.
And I clearly wasn’t alone.
Essentially a two-act concert of songs made popular by the 1940’s pop trio The Andrews Sisters, the slyly engaging show—directed with an obvious love of the Three Stooges by Barry Martin, Heather Buck and Scottie Woodard—succeeds in part because the singers are really good actors, and they know how to sell a song.
It’s 1945, somewhere in the South Pacific, hours before a USO show featuring the famous Andrews Sisters. Three brothers, Max, Lawrence, and Patrick—all also named Andrews—are in a panic. They are the stagehands for the local USO unit, though they long for a chance to show off their own singing skills. The opening act, an American pin-up girl named Peggy Jones, needs three male backup singers, and the boys have boldly decided that they will do the job, if they don’t get fired first.
Matt Davis, Scottie Woodard, and Adam Blankenship are charming as the bumbling brothers, and as Peggy, Andrea Dennison-Laufer, is the perfect blend of bombshell and sweetheart.
She not only does not have the brothers fired—she forms an instant crush on one of them. The first act of ‘The Andrews Brothers’ is the rehearsal, as the foursome sing their way through wartime hits like ‘Rosie the Riveter,’ ‘Cuanto Le Gusta,’ ‘On a Slow Boat to China,’ and ‘Accentuate the Positive.’ Then, just when it looks like the boys might learn the steps in time to open for the Andrews Sisters, they learn that the main act has the chicken pox, and the show is canceled.
Which is when Peggy decides to dress up the Andrews Brothers AS the Andrews Sisters.
What happens next, following the intermission, is the second act, a USO drag show, with outrageous physical comedy, all accented by songs from the Andrews Sisters greatest hits, from ‘Shoo Shoo Baby’ and ‘Three Little Sisters’ to ‘Six Jerks in a Jeep,’ ‘Stuff Like that There,’ and stuff like that there.
Not much of a plot, but what is there follows the rule of giving us characters we instantly care about and want to see succeed. And where the cast is having this much obvious fun, it can’t help but be contagious. Though not always stellar at the harmonies, each singer brings impressive chops, balancing the need form strong voices with serious comedic ability.
The set by Brian Watson is simple but effective, and includes some delightful roll-out embellishments, the costumes by Barbara McFadden are fabulous, and the lighting design by April George is crisp and clever. The band, under the direction of Craig Burdette, keep things popping, and with a total of 25 songs to accompany in under two hours, they certainly work hard in their tiny crawlspace above the stage.
‘The Andrews Brothers’ might not be much of a play, and lets face it, doesn’t really tell all that much of a story, but it does have characters we instantly root for, and that’s plenty to carry the playlist through to the final, surprisingly satisfying, song.
The Andrews Brothers runs through May 1st at Lucky Penny Community Arts Center in Napa, at at 1758 Industrial Way, Suite 208, Napa. Call 707-266-6305.
A version of this review originally was broadcast on KRCB FM radio