September 17, 2009

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World War II and the hair salon
Free night at the Comedy Canteen; the girls of  Steel Magnolias
By Heidi Masek hmasek@hippopress.com

Back in time with 1944 Big Band Comedy Canteen
Rewind to the Big Band era with 1944 Big Band Comedy Canteen. Admission is free.

It’s staged as if it were a radio show being “broadcast to the boys overseas,” director and choreographer Betty Thomson said.

Members of the cast of 21 impersonate popular entertainers of the era, like the Andrews Sisters, Al Jolson, Betty Hutton, Eddie Cantor, Groucho Marks, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Bob Hope. Short skits spoof radio programs of the time like Lone Ranger. A quartet, including Majestic Theatre director Rob Dionne, performs radio commercials of the era. Canteen incorporates drills from Manchester West ROTC cadets and the Concord Civil Air Patrol.

Thomson, 83, knows her stuff.

“I did professional theater years ago in New York. I mean this is my era, way back in the ’40s ... I’m an old broad,” Thomson said. Her credits include the last Passing Show in 1945, which the Shuberts produced during the time of Ziegfeld’s Follies.

Well-known professional actor George Piehl of StageOne Productions (currently acting with Sally Struthers in All Shook Up at Ogunquit Playhouse) performs in Canteen.

Bruce Smith also sings with Manchuka, a dance band frequently at Shaskeen in Manchester on Tuesdays.

Smith and several other cast members were in Canteen before, and in the well-received New Thalian Players production of Hot Mikado. The cast includes Joy Douville, Noreen Christensen, Paula Demers, Kathy Hodges, Joe Karas, Maggie Murphy, Michael McCarthy, Gary Evans, Anne Orio, Jim Rogato, Liz Perrin-Vigil, Adam Young, Barbara Lawler, Mary Case, Eileen Gfroerer, Sue Sartorelli, Ron Bourque, Mark Varney and Mark Willis. 

Canteen has been performed a few times, originally by New Thalian. They add new numbers and tweak it each time. Joel Mercier was the 17-year-old musical director and arranger about seven years ago for a run at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. He’s back for this show. He’s been the musical director at New London Barn Playhouse summer stock for two years.

Mercier said staging in radio format became big about 20 years ago (this crew decided to create their own, rather than rent a show), but actually performances for troops were live in the 1940s. “At the time, these people were involved in vaudeville” and took their shows directly to the troops, Mercier said.

Producer Candy Brehm had asked Thomson about bringing back the 1944 Big Band Comedy Canteen as a fundraiser for the Concord Community Players. Brehm told her everyone’s down and needs a kind of patriotic boost, Thomson said.

People don’t realize putting together a musical can cost about $15,000 by the time you pay royalties, musicians, and for costumes and a venue, Thomson said. However, the Walker Lecture Series, which was founded in Concord in the 1800s, decided to buy this show. Walker has an endowment that’s been growing since the 1800s, and originally funded a free series of travelogues. These days, they branch out, including one big show per year. Hence, you can watch the 1944 Big Band Comedy Canteen for free. Almost everyone involved is volunteering, so leftover funding supports the Players.

Mercier said every time he’s done the show it’s been packed, and those times people were paying. It runs only twice, Friday, Sept. 25, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Sept. 27, at 2 p.m., at the Concord City Auditorium, 2 Prince St., which seats about 830. For more information, see www.communityplayersofconcord.org or call the Audi at 228-2793.

Nashua takes on Southern play Steel Magnolias
Dan Barth directs Steel Magnolias for Nashua Theatre Guild.

“It’s really a peek into the world of three generations of women in the deep South in the early 1980s,” Barth said. The audience has the opportunity “to experience several different facets of life with them,” from “joyous” to “tragic and sorrowful” moments, Barth said. 

Maria Barry, Christina Hamilton, Kate Harper, Renee Macneil, Caroline Mellone-Lagno and Judi Mitchell perform.

They aren’t leaving a sentence to chance, and have been able to do some “pretty intense” theatrical work because of the actresses’ stage experience, Barth said. “They get character development,” Barth said. Outside help included learning about hair-styling at The Style Salon (650 Amherst St., Nashua).

In the play, male characters are only spoken of, although they have roles in the film version that followed, Barth said.

What’s it like to direct all women in a play set in a salon in the South? “Well, it’s certainly not a current experience by any means,” Barth said. But he’s done the show before. And with a male playwright, the characters are already seen through a man’s perspective, he said. However, Barth thinks the emotions are pretty universal. “I think you can tap into a lot of what the women are feeling in this show,” he said.

Beyond the non-Yankee locale, it’s also set almost 30 years ago, Barth said. According to his research, that part of the South “was probably 10 or 15 years” behind the nation, he said. He thinks the women in the salon are aware of the outside world, but it’s not penetrating theirs very quickly. “It’s fascinating to think of the change of perspective” since then, Barth said.

Nashua Theatre Guild presents Steel Magnolias, by Robert Harling, Thursday, Sept. 24, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 26, at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday, Sept. 27, at 2 p.m., at the Jan Streeter Theater, 14 Court St., Nashua. Tickets cost $10 and $12; visit www.nashuatheatreguild.org or call 320-2530. — Heidi Masek


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