'Dreams' rings true as a moving tribute
During wartime, holidays are tinged with sadness — and hope, as President Bush's surprise Thanksgiving visit to U.S. troops in Baghdad reminds us. This mingling of seasonal spirit and patriotism is lovingly brought to life in American Century Theater's throat-catching revue, "If Only in My Dreams," a salute to World War II soldiers and their loved ones back home.
Whether you're a hawk, dove or owl, you will no doubt be moved by this show. Avoiding falsely hearty holiday cheer, "Dreams" instead recaptures the real emotions of pride, longing, fear and exhilaration felt by Americans during World War II. The eight cast members (Kathryn Fuller, Tony Gudell, Dan Herrel, Patricia Hurley, Kim-Scott Miller, Lynn Audrey Neal, David Ruffin, Anna Marie Sell) are in fine voice, handling the often wistful holiday melodies with grace and delicacy.
"White Christmas," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "You're All I Want for Christmas" have been played to death on radio and in shopping malls, but, returned to their proper context, they regain their original power. We hear them so often, they sound like audio wallpaper. It is like hearing them for the first time, however, when we are reminded that they once captured the feelings of servicemen far from their loved ones, and of family members and friends longing for things to get back to normal.
Another delight retrieved from yesteryear is "Thanks for the Memory," a tune that eventually became little more than a musical theme associated with Bob Hope. Here, all the verses are presented and sung with hard-won wisdom by Mr. Miller and Miss Fuller, and the result is a ditty that is actually a sophisticated inventory of a romance gone wrong.
The show has many teary moments, especially in the readings of actual letters from servicemen, many of whom did not return from battle. One lachrymose interlude finds a family at Christmas still grieving over their son, a pilot, getting shot down in the Philippines in August. The mother (Miss Fuller) receives an official package — her son's dress blues. Absent-mindedly going through the pockets, she finds a $50 bill and a note attached to it ("For Dad's Masonic ring"), and somehow, this unexpected gift gives a family a reason to go on.
However, "If Only in My Dreams" is not an unrelenting sob fest. The proceedings are perked up by upbeat 1940s songs — "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth," "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," "I Came Here to Talk for Joe" and "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" — as well as period radio broadcasts and jingles.
Another highlight is the smoky-voiced Miss Neal singing "They're Either Too Young or Too Old" — about the lamentable pool of available men in wartime America — with a sultry pep that makes you think of Lauren Bacall. She also does a fine rendition of "Skylark."
The lighter numbers relieve the overall bittersweetness of "If Only in My Dreams," but it is the somber moments that stick with you and gently remind you that "peace on earth" is so much more than a seasonal catchphrase.
A young soldier stationed overseas gets news of the birth of his son. Another, a boy obsessed with planes who's grown into a man serving his country in an air patrol, slips money for his family into his dress blues in case his uniform has to be sent home without him.
These stories sound like two of the many we've been reading in the papers since March, but they're not about troops in the Iraqi conflict. Rather, they're vignettes from "If Only in My Dreams," a lovely World War II-era holiday musical revue being presented by American Century Theater. On a stage divided into a festive living room, spare radio booth and open floor space, the eight performers assume a variety of characters as they read from actual correspondence between servicemen and their families, give brief lessons on world developments from 1941 to 1945, and punctuate their re-creations of soldiers' stories with song.
We may no longer be a nation officially at war, but the revue's bittersweet sentiments about facing a yuletide season without loved ones are familiar even though they come from a different time. "If Only in My Dreams" is awash in '40s nostalgia, from a crackly radio broadcast of commercials for Jell-O and Kraft dinners that plays before the show and at intermission to the sharply tailored suits and high heels favored by the ladies left lonely by the draft and enlistments.
And, of course, there's the wonderful music. The fine-voiced ensemble cast, accompanied by live piano and bass, treats the audience to such aching melodies as "You'll Never Know," "Blue Christmas" and "It's Been a Long, Long Time." The mood is not all maudlin, however.
Perkier numbers -- "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" -- are sung with a smiling earnestness that feels sadly archaic, and the odd edge that Lynn Audrey Neal brings to her serious "I'll Be Seeing You" works perfectly in her very funny performance of "They're Either Too Young or Too Old," a lament about the era's lack of eligible bachelors. A rendition of "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth" is less successful: The youthful-looking Anna Marie Sell can get away with playing a pigtailed tyke snooping underneath the Christmas tree, but the five o'clock shadow on pajama-clad Tony Gudell makes the whole man-as-boy gimmick seem creepy.
In addition to the unknown soldiers the revue gives faces to, more famous characters are impersonated, including Bob Hope (Kim-Scott Miller), Winston Churchill (Miller again) and the Andrews Sisters (Neal, Kathryn Fuller and Patricia Hurley). Though undercurrents of sadness and skepticism pervade the evening, the overall attitude is one of patriotism and pride. Such optimism seems the most obvious throwback of "If Only in My Dreams."
If Only in My Dreams, conceived and adapted by Jack Marshall and Tom Fuller. Directed by Jacqueline Manger. Music director, Tom Fuller; set and lights, Marc A. Wright; sound, David Meyer; costumes, Anita H. Miller; props, Eleanor Gomberg. Approximately 2 hours. Through Jan. 3 at Gunston Theater II, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Call 703-553-8782.