Sponsor: Eastside Big Tom
By: Alec Clayton
It’s the big band swing era. War is being fought in Europe and in Asia, and it is Christmastime in America. At the Stardust Club in Manhattan they’re planning a big holiday shipping-out party for Army Air Corps Lt. Joe Malloy, who is on his way to the war in Europe.
That scenario should sound familiar to fans of Olympia’s Harlequin Productions, because “Stardust Serenade” is the 17th show in the Stardust series, musical theater with nostalgia, humor and a glittering array of 1940s song and dance.
Writer and director Linda Whitney says the idea grew out of love for the music and sentiments of the 1940s. “We Staged ‘1940s Radio Hour’ by Walton Jones in 1992 and had a remarkably good time with it and then did a show that had been originated by Oregon Cabaret Theater called ‘The Big Broadcast of 1943’ the following Christmas. At the time there really was a dearth of holiday shows set in the 1940s, so we began originating them ourselves.”
Setting the show in a Manhattan nightclub at Christmastime provided the perfect stage for music and romance and a bit of Vaudeville-style humor.
Nearly all of the shows have taken place in the Stardust Club. But one of them, “Operation Stardust,” was set in a supply depot in Tunisia in 1943. It was about a group of USO performers who were accidentally delivered to the remote supply depot. “Operation Stardust” was staged both in 1996 and in 2007. Four of the shows have been revived and largely rewritten to fit new casts. Harlequin’s musical director, Bruce Whitney, keeps reappearing as Nikolai, the Russian expatriate band leader. Whitney leads the band, plays piano and other instruments, and sometimes sings.
Megan Tyrrell, who plays bar girl Ginger Hart in “Stardust Serenade,” is the daughter of Jana Tyrrell, who played Frankie Mallon, one of the original Starlight Sisters, in the first play in the series. “Growing up I watched the Stardust series for years,” Tyrrell said. “I can remember going to rehearsals with my mother and being at as many shows as they’d allow, just hoping that someday I’d get to be a part.” She was five years old at the time of that first production. Now she gets to sing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” the same song her mother sang in the first Stardust show.
In this year’s show the planned party for Lt. Malloy is threatened by the presence of an IRS agent who has come to the club with the intention of shutting it down. Lt. Malloy is played by Ryan Holmberg, and the tax man is played by Scott C. Brown. Club owner Harry Hamilton, played by Matt Posner, manages to hold the tax man off long enough to throw their party. The party plans include a number of celebrity impressions as stars such as Mae West, W.C. Fields, Marlene Dietrich, Lena Horne, Judy Garland dressed as Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” John Wayne and others who serenade Lt. Malloy and tell jokes. There’s even a swashbuckling sword fight between Errol Flynn, played by Posner, and Charlie Chaplin in costume as the Little Tramp from his silent films, played by Christian Doyle.
Unlike the other celebrity guests who do their numbers and leave the stage, Charlie is an almost constant presence in the club, and his sole purpose seems to be to antagonize the tax man. In fitting tribute to the silent film star, Doyle pantomimes Charlie’s actions throughout.
Also appearing are Alison Monda and Alicia Mendez as bar girls and as various celebrities, and 17-year-old Jack Steiner as delivery boy Jimmy Sutton.
The show is filled with hit tunes from the big band era, including “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” “Stormy Weather” “Over the Rainbow ” and many others.
Many of the cast members spoke of how fortunate they are to be in the show. Tyrrell said, “I graduated from the University of Idaho in May of 2010 and that summer I moved back home. About a month later I got an email asking me to come in for an audition for Stardust, and I completely blew it! My song was way too high for my voice, and I walked away being totally embarrassed and sad that I wouldn’t get to fill my mother’s shoes.”
Much to her surprise, she got cast for last year’s show and again this year.
Holmberg said, “I don’t like musicals, it’s a form of theatre I normally avoid at all costs, but being asked to merely audition by Christian Doyle and Alison Monda, two of my favorite people in the world, I couldn’t say no, and it’s been an incredibly wonderful experience ever since. The sheer talent working on this show is breathtaking, and the cast instantly bonded without any preamble. The 1940’s celebrity impressions are spot on, the music is beautiful, and the show leaves each and every one of us with tears in our eyes and smiles on our faces.
Brown, the IRS agent, said, “Stardust is one of those sentimental shows that hearkens back to a bygone time that I identify with, appreciate, miss and feel very strongly that we as a society need right now. It might sound corny, but it’s a great feel good story, and every year, I have been impressed with the shows.”
For 17 years the Stardust shows have been credited to writer Harlan Reed. It is a not-too-well-kept secret that Harlan Reed is a pseudonym for Linda Whitney.