A trip to the past retrieves little of value in Swift Creek Mill's "As Thousands Cheer." 

The Way It Was

"As Thousands Cheer"
Swift Creek Mill Playhouse
Through Oct. 9
$18.50-$30
748-5203

At some time or another, we've all heard someone ask, "Why don't they make 'em like they used to?" For a definitive answer to this question, look no further than "As Thousands Cheer," now playing at Swift Creek Mill Playhouse.

This musical revue, featuring songs by Irving Berlin and comedy skits written by Moss Hart, debuted on Broadway in 1933 and has not aged well. Scenes that might have been sharp and witty years ago never make it past cute in this production, often stalling out around mildly amusing.

Stuck with such tepid material, director Tom Width's valiant cast tries its hardest to work up some comic momentum, but it is sabotaged by the script at every turn. As a result, many commendable moments are lost in the mediocrity that makes up the majority of the show.

It doesn't help that the first two sketches are among the lamest. In "Man Bites Dog," Richard Koch turns the tables on his chomp-happy pooch. The scene adequately introduces the device that drives the show, namely the dramatization of the stories behind some choice newspaper headlines. But it also sets the comedy bar at an unbelievably low level, a standard that the second sketch, "Gandhi Goes On New Hunger Strike," doesn't even meet.

A glimmer of hope is finally offered in a solo performed by Brenda Parker. Slyly reserving the power of her full-bodied voice for a few choice notes, Parker develops "Harlem on My Mind" into a delicious tribute to homesickness. Her song is followed by the sketch "Joan Crawford to Divorce Douglas Fairbanks Jr." where Robyn O'Neill and Width manage to generate some laughs playing the feuding movie stars.

Later on, O'Neill shines as both the poor little rich girl Barbara Hutton who is choosing from a trio of anxious suitors and as an anonymous "Lonely Hearts Club" letter writer. Musical director Paul Deiss uses spare but strong piano arrangements throughout the show which makes these emotionally charged scenes more resonant. But during peppier tunes like Robin Arthur's rendition of "Heat Wave" I couldn't help but wish for more musical layers, maybe at least a percussion track.

Arthur and Mark Persinger, both talented comic actors in other plays, exemplify what's wrong here in a sketch where they portray Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Hoover packing up to leave the White House. The comic summit is supposed to be the presidential pair calling newsmen and blowing raspberries at them over the telephone. Hardly sublime comedy, this is a waste of acting talent and, ultimately, of our time. Ironically, the show doesn't really get clever until its self-mocking conclusion.

The costumes are consistently first-rate throughout the production. Designer Scott Lynwood Joyce dresses the men in dapper and debonair suits, the women in glamorous gowns. Too often, however, the actors are all dressed up with nowhere significant to go. "As Thousands Cheer" may offer insight into what theater in the old days was like. Unfortunately, insight is about all it

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