“Aside from Adam Sandler films,” reporter Nicholas Barber wrote for the BBC’s website in 2016, “few things in life are less funny than war. Mass slaughter and widespread destruction are no laughing matter – and yet, it seems, we can’t stop laughing at them . . . ”
That’s because we know today’s Western troops are the good guys — or at least they were during World War II Europe as they eventually showed the Nazis what life’s about. We weren’t 100 percent sure of the outcome as Winston Churchill and Adolph Hitler staged their dance of death to the tune of 85 million lost lives worldwide; even so, games got played, songs got sung and wartime skits were the toasts of countless overseas military units, with guys like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby (and their top billings) as proof.
Comes now CHAPS!, Lamb’s Players Theatre’s send-up of the indefatigable wartime spirit, set in the land of our brothers in arms. It’s a cute piece, if extraordinarily lightweight — but more than that, its train of thought is logistically suspect, to the extent that it’s also a victim of its own success.
Even as the Luftwaffe air campaign is in full swing over London, BBC radio rocks a weekly installment of American cowboy star Tex Riley and his motley band of cutthroats — the country-Western entry features a cavalcade of music and anecdotes, and the troops get a kick out of a slice of life from another part of the globe, maybe the same way Paris has a renowned baseball bar (The DugOut, with its working batting cage) or South Korea cranks out singers of Western operas.
The problem is that, to every single performer, these people are simply great.
In time, the BBC manages to score Tex and his group for a live appearance — but there’s a war on, replete with transportation snafus that throw the plan in jeopardy. Tour manager Mabel shows up at the last minute with scripts and duds; now, it’s up to the radio staff to impersonate the absent Tex and his crew, replete with Southern drawls and the stereotypes that go with them.
You know some of the show’s 17 numbers, like the twangy “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle,” the plaintive “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds,” the introspective “Cool Water” and the sprightly “Sioux City Sue,” all of which stand to sound empty-headed in the hands of devotees several worlds removed. Fish-and-chips falconer Clive, sound engineer Archie, announcer Leslie, Foley artist Stan, producer Miles, and sanest-one-in-the-bunch Mabel give the gig a shot, fretting that the studio audience will discover the ruse at the very least.
The problem is that, to every single performer, these people are simply great. From Clive’s robust guitar to Mabel’s lovely voice to Stan’s pinpoint antics on the sound effects, everybody is in fine form — a world apart from the itinerant clan that cowered in fear at the prospect of their abilities moments earlier. Their inexplicable metamorphosis calls into question the choice of setting on the part of playwrights Jahnna Beecham and Malcolm Hillgartner, whose weak lone reference to the boys on the front and gimmicky lead-in to the intermission hardly support their conception. All that’s left is a slaphappy, displaced cohort with inconsistent affectations and seat-of-the-pants natures.
Manny Fernandes is decidedly substandard as Clive, who suddenly assumes everything about the American persona in spite of himself. Charles Evans Jr. is convincing as the befuddled Miles, as are Ross Hellwig as Leslie and Steve Gouveia as Archie, but all three’s roles are highly underwritten. Caitie Grady’s Mabel truly has a voice from the heavens, which is to say it’s out of place among this hard-boiled collective and amid the country fare she sings. Arusi Santi’s Stan says a lot with his indelible simper, and he’s got the Foley art form down.
Mike Buckley’s scene design parallels the show’s stage-specific flavor, while the rest of the tech is consistent with Lamb’s’ lofty traditions.
But the show never quite comes together, at least not against Lamb’s’ usual high-end fare. Too little wartime rhetoric, too inconsistent a bank of affectations and too self-involved a theme hobble it against the pedigree from director Robert Smyth, otherwise among the finest theater executives/practitioners you’ll find anywhere. It has a good heart, and I’ll recommend it here, but not with any particular enthusiasm.
This review is based on the matinee performance of March 17. CHAPS! runs through April 14 at Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave. In Coronado. $33-$40. lambsplayers.org, 619-437-6000.