As old VFW Hall is being cleaned out, before closing, and a treasure trove of letters, to and from many generations of soldiers, is found. So the granddaughter of the Hall’s longtime commander and three of her friends have a “Let’s put on a show!” moment: They assemble a revue where they read excerpts from the letters and sing songs that are associated, in many cases, with American wars, or have some other kind of historical resonance.
That is the premise of “The Pin-Up Girls” (subtitled “A Musical Love Letter”), which is currently being presented by the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. We’re told all of the above as background; the play basically consists of us watching the show they put together. For this one night only, they become The Pin-Up Girls, a wholesome, old-fashioned vocal group in the style of The Andrews Sisters or The McGuire Sisters.
The letter excerpts — adapted from real letters by co-writers James Hindman and Jeffrey Lodin — are mostly brief, and help the Girls transition from song to song. (Hindman also directs, while Lodin serves as the show’s musical director and played piano at the show I saw, though at some shows, the pianist is Jo Lynn Burks.)
There are some touching moments in the letters, and the show peaks, emotionally, with actress Sara Glancy’s aching delivery of the Gershwins ballad, “Someone to Watch Over Me.” But the revue’s tone is mostly bright and cheerful. And shallow.
Part of the show reproduces a USO-style show, with stale one-liners and broad caricatures of Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Nancy Sinatra and so on. Glancy’s character, Megan, flirts with audience members. Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” somehow makes it into the parade of golden oldies.
There is no plot, really, and just a hint of a subplot in the offstage story of Sharon, who had been planning to join her friends in the show but went into labor while rehearsing a strenuous dance; the Pin-Up Girls stay in touch with Sharon throughout the evening and get updates on the delivery. Sharon is replaced in the show by Joel (A.J. Melnick), the brother of Pin-Up Girls leader Leanne (Brittany Jeffery). (The fourth Girl is Dana, played by Pheonix Vaughn).
Joel’s presence in the Pin-Up Girls lineup is often joked about, and his awkwardness — he only joined the show at the last minute and so barely had any time to rehearse — is sometimes played for laughs. But at other points, he is able to sing complex vocal parts and negotiate complicated dance routines without any problem.
As you can see from the photo above, the costume design, by Patricia Doherty, has a sunny, suburban, Middle American quality that matches Hindman and Lodin’s approach. Jessica Parks’ wood-paneled, linoleum-tiled set, filled with flags and trunks, nails the look and feel of a decades-old VFW Hall.
Hindman was also responsible for the autobiographical one-man show “What Doesn’t Kill You,” which NJ Rep presented late last year. It had a similarly casual feel, and was also filled with glib jokes, but did, I thought, ultimately coalesce into something with real depth. I kept on waiting for “The Pin-Up Girls” to do something similar, but don’t feel that it ever did.
New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch will present “The Pin-Up Girls” through July 10. Visit njrep.org.
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