Never underestimate the power of drag. From pantos to Python, men have donned women's garb for laughs. The impulse seems atavistic. It wouldn't be surprising if archaeologists were to find cave drawings of Neanderthals in peekaboo saber-toothed skins.
Certainly, Roger Bean understands that drag still packs a punch. That's clear in the West Coast premiere of "The Andrews Brothers," the musical revue presented by Musical Theatre West at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach.
Bean, who created the show, is also the brainchild behind "The Marvelous Wonderettes," now wrapping up a long run at the El Portal before a planned move to off-Broadway. His formula is simple: Concoct a flimsy but workmanlike story, assemble a small cast of terrific singers and set them loose on vintage songs, famous and obscure, of a particular period.
In "Brothers," the time frame is World War II, and the lush, big band numbers from that era are perfect fodder for a crowd-pleasing jukebox musical that is heavy on harmonies and light on subject matter.
The organically simple "Wonderettes" treated the fortunes of four young women, first seen at their high school prom and later at their 10-year reunion. "Brothers" is far more contrived. Patrick, Max and Lawrence Andrews (twists on Patty, Maxene and LaVerne, get it?) are brothers who have all, for non-life-threatening reasons, been deemed 4-F. Unable to serve in the military, the guys have been doing their bit as stagehands with the USO. Now in the South Pacific, they're awaiting the arrival of the Andrews Sisters, who are scheduled to perform before the fighting men on the base are shipped off to parts and fates unknown.
For backup singer Peggy Jones (Darcie Roberts), a popular pinup girl, it's a chance to prove she's got real talent. Ditto for the brothers, who are also dying for a chance to get onstage. When the Andrews Sisters are quarantined with chicken pox, the show must go on -- with the Andrews Brothers masquerading as . . . the Andrews Sisters.
That far-fetched premise is so intrinsically specious, it makes a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney movie seem Shakespearean. Yet, if you are not averse to lighter-than-air entertainment without the ballast of plot, you are likely to have plenty of fun.
Director Nick DeGruccio, musical director John Glaudini and choreographer Roger Castellano orchestrate the prevalent inanity with appropriately military efficiency. Roberts has a dream voice and a sultry stage presence that nicely counterbalance the slapstick, performed with no-holds-barred goofiness by Larry Raben, David Engel and Stan Chandler, who play Patrick, Max and Lawrence, respectively. Consummate professionals all, the cast sells this insubstantial diversion like they are hawking war bonds.
Vintage cartoons and footage, ranging from Kate Smith singing "God Bless America" to a Bugs Bunny cartoon, play before the show and at intermission. But producers missed an obvious bet by not including a snippet of Bugs in drag. That would have jibed perfectly with this antic, cross-dressing, pleasingly silly amusement.
'The Andrews Brothers'
Where: Carpenter Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays and
Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Call for exceptions.
Ends: May 4
Price: $25 to $53
Contact: (562) 856-1999, Ext. 5
Running time: 2 hours