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Swingin' Back

Two plays reach for that old-time musical magic

The next millennium is just around the corner, but you'd never know it by two new sweet and goofy plays that hark back to the golly-gee times of decades long past.

Leave It To Jane, at Main Street Theater, is all about the struggles of the students at Atwater, a small-town college in need of a great football star. These are the kind of white-bread kids who lived in what used to be lazy-Saturday-afternoon Life of Riley shows. Their biggest troubles have to do with finding a way to beat rival Bingham at long last.

The gorgeous "peach of life," Jane (Laura Coker), who's every boy's favorite -- not to mention daughter of the college president -- is just the sort of bewitching girl who can make it all happen. That's why everyone sings "Leave It To Jane." When big Billy Bolton (Dan Bunch) passes through Atwater on his way to Bingham, Jane and all the rest of the gang see their chance at victory. If they could only get Billy to stay at Atwater everything would be peachy keen.

The problem: Big old Billy's a great football star but not much of a student. And Billy's dad, who's given gobs of dough to Bingham to ensure Billy's degree, has said loud and clear that if Billy doesn't go to that school, he'll be cut off without a cent.

What's a big, rich Midwestern boy in love with the prettiest girl in Atwater to do? Defy dad, of course, 'cause love always wins in the good-hearted olden days.

The admittedly inane story is just the right sort of vehicle for the bubbly tunes of this Jerome Kern musical. These may not be Kern's best songs, but the music is lively, and the gaggle of energetic and eternally grinning actors featured in this odd little musical have, for the most part, lovely voices.

As Jane, Coker doesn't bring much acting to the stage, but in all fairness the role is fairly thin, requiring mostly that she stroll about gracefully and grin madly at every passing boy. However, Coker's soprano voice is charming, tender and lyrical -- just right.

Bunch is also fairly nondescript in the role of the big football-playing galoot, but again his voice is perfectly matched to the material. The standouts come in the smaller parts. Trey Birkhead, as the carrot-haired, noodle-thin Ollie, brings lots of good college try to the show; so do Omari Williams and Karen Ross as Stubby and Bessie, the kids who help Jane come up with her zany idea. And Michelle Britton almost steals the show as waitress Flora Wiggins, the woman who can't keep a man to save her life.

Director Rob Babbitt has made the unusual choice of putting the actors in black formal wear throughout the piece rather than using any costuming. It's difficult to understand this decision given the milieu of the play, but the absence of set pieces and extraneous props works quite well with the fast pace of the show.

There's not much to take home and mull over, but it's a happy diversion from today's very complicated world waiting just outside the theater doors.

Swingtime Canteen, at New Heights Theatre, is another little bubble of a play that carries all the heft and import of a coconut macaroon. But the swing music this show is built around is some of America's best, and the women in this all-female cast are strong singers.

The play -- by Linda Thorsen Bond, William Repicci and Charles Busch -- focuses on five women who make up a USO traveling show in World War II. Each one has a tale, and there's lots of fighting and bickering. The show goes on despite an air raid, lost love and the absent Andrews Sisters, who get sick and are quarantined. The women of the traveling show even keep singing after they've been notified that this performance will be their last. It seems the military didn't realize the group was all-female, and a bunch of women running around the South Pacific just doesn't seem all that safe.

But these girls are troopers. There's has-been movie star Marion (Elizabeth Byrd), who starts this tour as a last-ditch effort to revive her career. Lilly McBain (Jessica Calvello) is a platinum-blond vamp who never got the show-biz break she deserved. Topeka Abotelli (Zona Meyer) walks right out of a Norman Rockwell painting to perform mom-type songs for the boys. Katie Gammersflugel (Luci Christian) is as cornbread-naive as they come, but her heart's pure gold, and she's got the dimples to prove it. Jo Sterling (Bethany Daniels) is a movie stand-in and good ol' plain Jane who's so useful she can tinker under the hood of a Chevy.

We learn all this history and more as the actors stay on stage throughout the show, talking in between such familiar songs as "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive," "Don't Fence Me In," "Pack Up Your Troubles" and a very fast medley of Andrew Sisters tunes.

Everyone performs with a good deal of vivacity, though the show is strangely absent of anything even remotely sexy. Byrd is an especially fine and accomplished singer. Her slow and wonderfully quiet version of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" provided the most moving moment. Luci Christian was also good as the girl next door, her voice having the sweet clarity of a bell.

Daryl Connor's costumes also deserve mention. All the red, white and blue sateen, with big gold buttons and flouncy pleats, nicely captured the period and joyful spirit of the play.

Don't go looking for anything that's going to rock your world, but if you long for simpler times and all the music that goes with them, you can't get much better than an energetic race through the best tunes from the Andrews Sisters.

Leave It To Jane runs through January 17 at Main Street Theater at Chelsea Market, 4617 Montrose, 524-6706. $13-$18.

Swingtime Canteen runs through February 13 at New Heights Theatre, 339 W. 19th, 869-8927. $18-$20.

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