Review: 'Over Here!' a top-notch production but misses boat on nostalgia

A trip back to World War II through the music of the era sounds like a delightful vehicle for a musical revue. But without any of the actual songs that were popular during the time period, Kansas University Theatre’s production of “Over Here!” feels strange as a nostalgia piece.

Written in 1974, the show, with music by Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman (the team behind “Mary Poppins” and other Disney musicals) and a book by Will Holt, was designed as a vehicle for the two surviving Andrews Sisters. Thus, Paulette (Kristen Larsen) and Pauline (Jessica Brink) DePaul are a pair of USO singers looking for their big break, when they are assigned to entertain recruits being shipped via train from the West Coast to New York, where they will embark for Europe.

The duo is convinced they are never going to hit it big unless they can find a third singer to give them that tight, three-part harmony the Andrews Sisters were famous for. Thus, they spend part of the journey recruiting every woman on the train until they at last find soprano Mitzi (Lilly Karrer). Of course, no one realizes she is a Nazi spy, despite her thick, German accent.

Meanwhile, June (Abby Sharp) has stowed away aboard the train to keep her high school sweetheart, Bill (Cale Morrow), company as he travels toward the war. Bill wants to consummate their relationship, since he doesn’t know if he’ll ever see her again, but being a good girl, June refuses, sparking tension between them.

The rest of the cast plays soldiers and civilians in ensemble fashion, with each having his or her own special number that invokes the mood of the time period. The whole thing is woven together by a narrator (Kevin Thomas Smith), who alternates as a drill sergeant, train conductor and civilian relating his memories of the home front.

Production-wise, “Over Here!” is top-notch. Director/choreographer John Staniunas has his students acting, singing and dancing as if they stepped straight out of 1942. At times, it’s like watching an Irving Berlin film unfolding live in front of you. The dance numbers are all terrific, particularly “Charlie’s Place,” which has everyone moving at a frenetic swing pace and features some acrobatic work by its leads, Jaclyn Amber Nischbach and Justin Kelly.

Likewise, Frankie Jay Baker stops the show with an impressive, and at times searing, rendition of “Don’t Shoot the Hooey to Me, Louie,” a song that explodes the quiet racism and troop segregation of the 1940s. Baker is mesmerizing, gliding around the stage in bowler cap and white gloves and using a push broom for a partner.

Larsen and Brink are great as the DePaul Sisters. They could easily be Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen in “White Christmas,” and when they add in Karrer upon Mitzi’s discovery, you’d swear you were listening to the Andrews Sisters.

A 20-piece band recreates the sound of Glen Miller, Benny Goodman and other Big Band maestros. Indeed, the Sherman Brothers do a fine job of mimicking the popular music of the early ’40s. Every song could have been recorded by Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Clooney, or, of course, the Andrews Sisters.

And that’s what makes the show so strange. It’s very deliberately a nostalgia piece. “That’s the way I remember the war,” the narrator says on several occasions. The plot is really flimsy and is constructed largely to evoke memories of things like rationing, “loose lips sink ships,” the nation pulling together and other aspects of World War II America. That usually works just fine as a vehicle to perform the songs of the time period.

But these songs are all original to the piece. They were written in 1974 to give the Andrews Sisters new material. They sound like they could be “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” or “In the Mood.” But they’re not. The show opens with the narrator saying, “Here’s one of the big hits from the time, ‘Since You’re not Around.’” Jake Thede renders it gorgeously with a golden tenor voice, but it’s not a song from the time.

“Over Here!” keeps asking us to remember things we don’t. As a result, it feels like a kind of amnesia. You keep thinking you should know a song you don’t.

In 1974, with the Andrews Sisters onstage deliberately evoking their glory days, it probably worked very well. Thirty years later, one wonders why, if the producers wanted a 1940s nostalgia show, they didn’t just use the actual music from the time period. Consequently, “Over Here!” feels more dated than charming.

Still, it’s no fault of the performers. The actors and musicians embrace the music and schtick wholeheartedly, rendering it honestly and entertainingly. If the goal, though, was to educate young performers on one of American music’s most dynamic periods, it’s a shame University Theatre didn’t choose a piece that featured the actual songs of the day.

“Over Here!” continues May 2, 3, and 4. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m., except Sunday, when it is 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 864-3982 or online at kutheatre.com.

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