In 1943, Twentieth Century-Fox released The Song of Bernadette. Reportedly over 2000 actresses were auditioned for the lead role of Bernadette Soubirous, the real-life French peasant girl who in 1858 claimed to see the Virgin Mary and who discovered the underground spring at Lourdes, now famous for its healing powers. She renounced family life, became a nun, and was declared a saint by the Catholic church in 1933.
Swing Out, Bernadette! is an irreverent "what if" reworking of the making of this film. Presented by NativeAliens - who work from a gay/lesbian perspective - Jodi Smith's script supposes that a male ingenue is cast as Bernadette by the director, B.Z., who wants to go out with a bang. The show takes us through the filming, with on-camera action sandwiched between backstage scenes, mocking both 1940s films and the backstage musical.
Fundamentally, this was a revue sketch that had been unnaturally stretched to fill two hours. The representational set (two painted flats and a curtained rostrum for The Lady) lent an improvised air, as did Jeff Seabaugh's stock costumes (peasants in baggy neutral outfits, The Lady in a suggestive negligee, BZ and his assistant Wanda in breeches, braces and berets). There were also the requisite, knowing one-liners (director to the Virgin Mary: "head up, tits out"). Add to this a limited and recurring set of visual jokes (the Virgin Mary looking anything but, the male Bernadette in a headscarf looking coy, the diva actress stealing the limelight, sustained looks to camera) and you had the makings of an amusing satirical sketch.
As a two-hour show, however, it lacked momentum. After half an hour the gags were becoming repetitive and the story predictable. The creators failed to take it to the next level: having cast Bernadette as male, the effect was neutralized by the usual male predator/lover characters being gay, thus maintaining the standard scenario. Equally, casting a man as the middle-aged female diva and having a butch female Assistant Director didn't invite reassessment so much as perpetuation of stock characters (divas as masculine - not a new concept). Ultimately, all but one character (Jimmy) remained two-dimensional and never faced stakes high enough to sustain much interest.
On the plus side, director/co-conceiver Jeff Seabaugh kept the show moving, deftly marshalling the large cast around the small space. The actors seemed to be having a blast and left strong impressions: the large, histrionic Louise (Scott Gilmore) cowering before the short, uncompromising Wanda (Jodi Smith); B.Z.'s (Christopher Swan) irrepressible enthusiasm; Bernadette (the expressive Nick Malone) flinging himself through "The Trolley Song" with a manic grin; Michael Beltran as the insinuating leading man, Antoine; Lisa Shaheen as an eager non-speaking extra preparing for her 15 seconds of fame; Nancy Rogers as the trashy actress playing The Lady with forced vowels and enforced dignity. Most consistently engaging was Tyler Ashby Jones as Jimmy, the cameraman who fell in love with the new star only to see his adored falling prey to Antoine. The focus and intensity of his feelings - love, despair, silent hatred - was both comic and convincing, injecting a sustained note of truth into the proceedings.
In short, there were moments in all areas - acting, directing, writing - that indicated that in this case the talent of the individual artists was greater than the production as a whole. In this format Swing Out, Bernadette didn't take - but the potential is there for the next show.
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Copyright 2002 Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen