It’s hard to believe that “Strike Up the Band,” the musical satire by George S. Kaufman, with songs by George and Ira Gershwin, was considered so scathingly harsh and grim in 1927 that audiences rejected it. Today, in a well-mounted revival at the Freud Playhouse, the political content seems dated and quaint, a slim pretext on which to hang some of Broadway’s greatest songs.
To most audiences, the showcasing of these songs will be enough. As directed by Don Amendolia, “Strike Up the Band” sings and dances away any objections we might have to inane dialogue or plot contrivances.
It opens with a clever establishing number, “The Horace J. Fletcher American Cheese Company,” which introduces us to the characters and sets the plot in motion.
The zany premise centers on an American tariff against Swiss cheese that elicits such an angry response from Switzerland that Horace J. Fletcher (Charles Nelson Reilly), owner of the American Cheese Co., pushes the U.S. to declare war.
A young pacifist, Jim Townsend (Michael Maguire), learns that Fletcher has been using Grade B milk for his cheese, incurring the enmity of war zealots who side with Fletcher and brand Townsend a traitor for owning a Swiss watch.
In the midst of this goofy political chicanery, Townsend falls in love with Fletcher’s daughter Joan (Melissa Dye). There’s an amusing subplot involving Fletcher with a man-hungry woman, Mrs. Draper (Ruth Williamson). Another young couple round out the array of romantic conflicts: Mrs. Draper’s daughter Anne (Hope Levy), who loves Fletcher employee Timothy (Troy Britton Johnson), but is forbidden by her mother to marry him until the mother finds a husband.
It’s a lot to keep up with, and would hardly be worth the effort if the dazzling numbers didn’t come barreling down in quick succession. The entire cast is multi-talented. Maguire and Dye are delightful pairing on “The Man I Love” and equally effective doing the “Soon” duet. Other standouts include the sensational ensemble socking across “Oh, This Is Such a Lovely War” and “Strike Up the Band.”
Williamson is a confident and arresting comedienne. Roles that feature predatory, middle-age man chasers are invariably overdone and embarrassing, but Williamson finds the humanity beneath her farcical surface.
Her lyric phrasing on “I’ve Got a Crush on You” is as much a tribute to her acting as her singing. Charles Nelson Reilly starts out tentatively and takes a while to find his footing, but he makes the greedy cheese magnate engaging and even touching.
Musical directors Peter Matz and Gerald Sternbach preserve the magic of Gershwin’s tunes, and Gene Castle rates a big hand for his inventive choreography. By dressing up this old-fashioned trifle, costume designer Scott A. Lane, lighting designer Tom Ruzika and sound designer Philip G. Allen also contribute strongly toward turning “Strike Up the Band” into lively entertainment.