"Rosie and the Riveters" rehearse a WWII-era musical number.
Photo by Ben McLeod.
by BEN MCLEOD
The cast and crew of the Winona Health Volunteer's variety show, "USO Salute to the Troops," are having so much fun in rehearsal that they want the rest of the community to come join them next weekend at the Winona Middle School auditorium. The show, put on entirely by volunteers from around the region, features songs, comedy and dance from the eras of World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam.
Director Jim Vrchota, commercial and ag banker at Winona's Merchants Bank, also wrote the show and has presented it in three other communities although each version is tailored to its unique cast. "I found out a long time ago that what I need to do is hold auditions, then pick my talent to line up with the show," Vrchota explained. "If I've got Andrews Sisters, if I've got Bob Hope or Pasty Cline, I can retool the script to who I have at the time." And for this weekend's performance there is certainly a Bob Hope. John "Jack" Karnick introduces himself as "Bob 'That's Not My Vodka That Fell Out Of The Airplane' Hope," and he acts as the glue between the songs and comedy numbers in the full Hawaiian-shirt-and-golf-club uniform that Hope wore at USO performances for decades. "We were thinking about the best comedy acts of their time," Vrchota said. "We've got a Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, a Burns and Allen, an Abbott and Costello, and a 'Laugh-In' scene, which is one of the most recognizable things from Vietnam-era comedy." There is a rewritten version of Abbott and Costello's famous "Who's on First" sketch, altered for the military experience, "Who's my Drill Sergeant?" A version of the 1940's song "They're Either Too Old or Too Young" is performed by a chorus of women billed as Rosie and the Riveters.
Covering nearly 40 years of performances, the costuming and choreography is complicated. "The show goes through three periods so it's been a real challenge," assistant director Susan Krohse said. "That means three costumes for however many people there are, including makeup, wigs –– and everything is period. All the guys will be getting a haircut." But the production has a lot of secret weapons. "Lacey [Korb] is absolutely the most awesome makeup person I know. She astounds me with her makeup skills. I can't wait to see her in costume with makeup as Carmen Miranda," Krohse said. The production also boasts a choreographer with off-Broadway performance experience in New York. Leslie Kemp, who is on the staff of the Winona Chamber of Commerce, is the liasion for the Ambassadors, many of whom are volunteers for the Winona Health shows. "When they found out that I worked in the theater they said, 'We need your help putting this together!' I was volunteered by volunteers," Kemp said. She's faced challenges with the production, as the music "goes from boogie-woogie to the Age of Aquarius." While the show's rehearsals are held above a downtown Winona business, Kemp is putting in the same effort she would give to a New York show. "I mean these people are just putting hours and hours into this and it's really remarkable how dedicated they are," she said. "They're having a lot of fun but there's still a lot of respect. I'm having a blast."
The show is full of humor and silliness, but there are deeply respectful moments as well. One segment features letters written home by U.S. servicepeople, and while Vrchota said that they hadn't been able to include any from Winona specifically, they are all from actual letters. "But I'm sure there were letters like that written by soldiers from Winona," he said. "I'm sure there were guys who had to tell mom what was going on. We kind of look at it as a two-fer," Vrchota added, "a fundraiser for Winona Health and of course a tribute to our veterans."
Cast and crew come from all over the area. Junior high school students, seniors and everyone in between are present on the program. The common thread is theater, but underneath runs a current of charity and volunteerism. Music director Becky Wisted, and accompanist/arranger Nancy Bachler both donate of themselves, but also have a blast pulling together the music for the show. Thomas Peter and Ellie Peterson, two of the youngest cast members, are not new to performance. Peter has done "a lot of history plays. I enjoy it and I will do it in the future," he said. Peterson has been acting since sixth grade, and takes part in the live Nativity scene every year at The Edge church. "It's one of my favorite hobbies," she declared.
Vrchota was intent on treating the performance seriously. "It was very important that I surround my people with people from the community who knew what they were doing," Vrchota explained. Krohse is excited to get the cast and crew onto the actual stage where they'll be performing. "I know that stage like the back of my hand," Krohse asserted, having worked in the Winona Middle School drama program for years. "I love my auditorium. It's different to practice in that space. Here, there are no lights, no sound, so I'm just really anxious to get in there."
Bernadette Thicke, president of the Winona Health Volunteers, handles the production details. This year she is behind the scenes. "I was on the other end last year," she said. "You know it's kind of fun. I did the Cemetery Walk on the spur of the moment. Gosh, there was a lot to remember but wow, that was fun." Wisted has been a cast member, too. "I've done a chicken, I've done a judge, I've done a nun. I've had just the most fun," she said. "You've got a mask on and they don't know who you are. I love it. It's just a hoot."
The show, written and directed by Jim Vrchota, will run on Thursday and Friday, April 12 and 13, at 7 p.m. and twice on Saturday at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. General admission tickets are $15 and $10 for veterans. All proceeds will go to benefit the Winona Health Family Birth Center.