- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 21, 2002

San Juan Capistrano may have the returning swallows, Vermont the turning leaves of maple trees. Here in Washington, the most joyous sign that the seasons are changing is the sight of Floyd King in a dress.
Mr. King, the most supple of clowns, lends a certain soignee poetry to drag. Yet he is equally commanding in an impeccably cut dinner jacket, cigarette in hand, delivering the droll, Noel Coward-esque ditty "Could You Please Inform Us (Who Really Won The War)?" in Studio Theatre's campy, captivating musicale "Privates on Parade."
Mr. King doing a raucous Carmen Miranda impersonation, shaking those maracas as if his life depended on it to "The Latin American Way" is really the only way to usher in a new theater season. If every show is as energetic and inspired as "Privates on Parade," dashingly directed by Joy Zinoman, then we needn't concern ourselves with the inevitable letdown after this summer's Sondheim Celebration.
The 1977 musical play by Britain's Peter Nichols (with music by Dennis King) is handled by Miss Zinoman with silliness and sophistication, combining the broad humor of English music halls and pantos with carefully wrought commentary on racism, miscegenation, homosexuality and homophobia, and the casual cruelties of wartime.
"Privates on Parade" is based on Mr. Nichols' experiences as a member of a song-and-dance touring unit similar to the USO dispatched to Southeast Asia in 1948. World War II is over, but there is tension between British colonialists and communist guerrillas in Malaysia. The boys need cheering up while mired in this hopeless cause.
The play depicts a ragtag troupe readying and performing a revue for the hapless soldiers, and its show-within-a-show format recalls "Cabaret," "Noises Off," "Kiss Me Kate" and other works pertaining to life upon the wicked stage. In the broader sense the troupe depicts a cross section of postwar British society, an uneasy hybrid of the old and the new.
They are led by Terri Dennis (Mr. King), a flamboyant queen who feminizes everyone's name (Reg becomes Regina, for example) and uses the pronoun "she" no matter what the gender. He is also an army captain, and he has a show to put on, darn it.
Aside from his assistant, the half-Welsh, half-Indian Sylvia Morgan (the gorgeous Sunita Param, what a treasure she is); Terri has to make do with Len (David Bryan Brown), an amiable chowderhead from Northern England who communicates in an almost Tourette's-like outpouring of profanity; Charles (Jim Ferris), a gentle male nurse and Len's lover; Kevin (Will Gartshore), a studly WWII flying ace; and Eric (Tom Gualtieri), a nervous sort who only wants to get home to his fiancee Susan. This gaggle of actors, especially Mr. Brown and Mr. Ferris, work beautifully both as entertainers and as creators of solid, emotionally complex characters.
They are terrorized by Sgt.-Maj. Reg Drummond (Michael Tolaydo), a corrupt and abusive man who curses having been assigned to such a demeaning post. Reg is the quintessential bad guy, but Mr. Tolaydo plays him as someone swamped by a penchant for violence.
The play is narrated by Pvt. Stephen Flowers (John Cohn), a newbie from Intelligence. His accent roams all over England before settling down, but he creates a nuanced portrait of a young man straddling traditional British mores and modern sensibilities. "Privates on Parade" tends to meander when not focused on the musical numbers, which are all doozies, starting with Mr. King in fluffy drawers and thigh-high stockings doing a spot-on Marlene Dietrich impression and ending with the "Jungle Jambouree" number, a tribute to second-banana vaudeville that reveals exactly where Benny Hill got all his material.
But the evening belongs to Mr. King, with his badly dyed hair and endless maquillage, and J. Fred Schiffman as a hilariously loopy major-without-a-clue, whose outrageously gung-ho attitude yields dangerous results. You adore Mr. Schiffman's character relishing the pronunciation of the word "ooolo" (a Malay term for "jungle") as if it were a particularly juicy chop while briefing the men.
But then you cannot help but draw modern parallels between this dim major pushing an agenda onto a foreign culture and what is going on in our nation at the moment.

***1/2
WHAT: "Privates on Parade" by Peter Nichols
WHEN:
Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., through Oct. 20
WHERE:
Studio Theatre, 1333 P St. NW, Washington, D.C.
TICKETS:
$25-$44.25
PHONE: (202) 332-3300
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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