Original play to debut at Masquers dinner theater

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“USO: Christmas at War,” the Masquers dinner theater show that opens this week, takes place at a United Service Organization show during World War II.

The musical was written by two Masquers veterans, Emily Lehmann Wiberg and Melissa Stewart.

If you like the music of the Andrews Sisters, you’ll probably enjoy this.

The story centers on the sisterly trio of Shirley Addams (played by Sarah Dewhirst), Doris Addams (Anissa Lubbers) and Violet Addams (Teresa Jackson).

After performing on the vaudeville circuit, the girls had moved on with their  lives. But when the eldest sister loses her husband at Pearl Harbor, they decide to perform for the troops to contribute to the war effort.

Other cast members are Doniver Ahlm as Bill Hype, Bill Roman as Major Flynn and Melissa Stewart as Ruby McMillan. Steve Modena plays Jake Shepard.

The song list includes “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy in Company B,” “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

There are also other Christmas selections, both sacred (“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”) and secular (“Merry Christmas Polka”).

Karen Hillman and Craig Moen will accompany the singers on keyboard, trumpet, bass and banjos.

Like last year’s production of “Winter Wonderettes,” the USO show will be presented at Forest Lake American Legion Post 225, 355 W. Broadway.

Performances will be held this week on Thursday, Friday and Sunday, and next week on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The Sunday shows are matinees that start at 2 p.m. All other shows start at 7 p.m.

Dinner is served beginning 90 minutes before the show.  Choose from rigatoni with meatballs, chicken fettuccine Alfredo, chicken Caesar salad or pasta primavera.

Tickets are available at www.masquerstheatre.org/tickets.shtm. For more information, call Masquers Theatre Company at 651-464-5823.

The playwrights

Emily Lehmann and Melissa Hoarn, as they were known then, met at Masquers when they both performed in “Oliver” in 2008.

Emily has been acting since age 4. She attended grades nine and 10 at Chisago Lakes High School, grades 11 and 12 at the Perpich Center Arts High School, and Eugene Lange College, part of New School University in New York City.

She also met her husband at Masquers. In the summer, she teaches at the Masquers community education theater program. Last year she starred as Missy in “Winter Wonderettes.”

Melissa starred as Nancy in the Masquers production of “Oliver” and as Marian in “The Music Man.”

After graduating from Chisago Lakes Baptist School, she studied theater at Northwestern Bible College.

Melissa works as a nanny during the day and coaches volleyball after school and in the evenings. On the weekends she plays in volleyball tournaments.

“Coaching is what I’m really passionate about,” she said. “And I’ll play as long as my body lets me.”

In “USO: Christmas at War” she plays Ruby McMillan, a Rita Hayworth-like performer who sings and dances. Her solos are “Auld Lang Syne” and “When the Lights Go On Again,” a hopeful song about a time when there will be no more blackouts or air raids.

The process

When not enough men auditioned for the show originally planned, the two decided to write a play together. Both are World War II buffs, and a war story seemed appropriate for the American Legion venue.

“My grandpa served in the Battle of the Bulge,” Emily said. “He was prisoner of war held by the Germans. It’s part of my family history.”

Melissa came to appreciate history through reading. She remembers being in first grade when her older sister read to her “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry, about a little girl in Nazi-occupied Denmark.

Neither playwright had read “Over Here, Over There: The Andrews Sisters and the USO Stars in World War II” by Maxene Andrews and Bill Gilbert. This book, plus hours of USO videos, became major parts of the research the two completed before they started writing.

From the research, Emily said, she learned about race relations, a topic not included in the play.

“Black performers were brought in just to entertain the USO entertainers,” she said. “They were not allowed to stay in the same hotels as whites.”

The show came together during a 14-hour session in which both partners, working separately, wrote each scene. Then they would read each other’s work and confer, after which Melissa combined the two efforts into one scene.

“The 14 hours was a little crazy,” Melissa said. “We’re 100 percent different people, but we get along. She’s the brainstormer, with a ridiculous amount of brilliant ideas. I’m the organizer.”

“It was overwhelming, but really exciting,” Emily said.

Final touches came during rehearsals. The cast started with the rough draft and made suggestions to help develop the characters more fully. Music director Karen Hillman added harmonies and fit the keys to the actors’ voices.

Forest Lake High School student Amanda Hennen, who starred in the high school production of “Frog and Toad” this fall, is stage manager.

The choreographer is Taylor Ellice Van Denburgh, and producers are Ian Lexvold and Cindy Weiss.

Peter Wiberg, Emily’s husband, is in charge of lights and sound.