Presented by Music-Theatre Group and the Vineyard Theatre at the Vineyard, 108 E. 15 St., NYC, April 11-21.
Written and directed by Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner, "Swimming with Watermelons" takes a simple story (the interracial romance between Paulus' parents in occupied Japan immediately after World War II) and suffuses it with the jazzy brio of a U.S.O. show. Packed with American pop standards and bursting with infectious good humor, it feels a lot more substantial than it really is.
The all-female cast—Emily Hellstrom, Rachel Benbow Murdy, Jordin Ruderman, and Anna Wilson, all of whom demonstrated their gender-bending skills in Paulus and Weiner's "The Donkey Show"—has a great time with the material. With the exception of Hellstrom, whose deftly underplayed Tomoko gives the play its emotional center, the actresses do double duty as American GIs and the women in their lives, from Japanese hookers to German vamps. (Considerable demands have been made on costume designer Ilona Somogyi, with commendable results.) This somewhat risky approach pays off: The female foursome puts an intriguing spin on the era's flyboy machismo, giving lusty voice to the various pop tunes that Paulus and Weiner have interpolated as an ongoing faux karaoke.
"Swimming with Watermelons" isn't flawless by any means. More than one sequence must have seemed more clever or irresistible in rehearsal, and once you get past the reverse-gender conceit, the plot twists wouldn't be out of place in a 1940s B-movie. But that's part of its charm. Coupled with the four winning performances, Paulus and Weiner turn a politically and sexually charged situation into a charming, albeit slim, entertainment. Picture stumbling onto an old wartime romance on AMC at 2 am—it may not linger in your mind for long, but you'd do well to put the remote down, tap your foot, and let the exotic yet familiar warmth wash over you.