THE 1940'S RADIO HOUR
by Walton Jones
Musical Director - Brian Piper
Director - William R. Park
Instrumentalists - The Brian Piper Trio
Costume Designer - Kristin N. Moore
David Bodenstedt - Pops Bailey
Tim Cahill - B.J. Armstrong
Alexis Henderson - Connie Miller
Maurice Johnson - Johnny Cantone
Jason Kennedy - Wally Ferguson
Gabriella Matsotso - Geneva Lee Brown
Christine Phelan - Ann Collier
Amanda Ridout - Ginger Brooks
Alex Ross - Neal Tilden
Scott Zenreich - Lou Cohn
Blake Davidson - Clifton Feddington
Reviewed Performance 2/17/2011
Reviewed by Carol Anne Gordon, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
They don't write songs like they used to, and that's a real shame. The great American songbook reached its zenith during World War II, and twelve of the twenty-one musical numbers presented in "The 1940's Radio Hour" are classics from that era that have endured ever since.
The show is built around a Christmastime broadcast by a small radio station in New York City in 1942. There's a confusing "soft opening" for ten excruciatingly long minutes, where a couple of characters come onstage and perform repetitive actions, first with the house lights up, and then after they come down. This adds nothing to the play except length, which, with a running time of 1 hour and forty-five minutes without an intermission, this show does not need.
Eventually the other cast members appear onstage, and twenty minutes of confusing, overlapping, repetitive and overacted dialogue and bits that are meant to set up the back stories of all the characters ensue, which only serve to make the audience restless for the great music to get started already.
Most of the evening's musical high points are delivered by The Brian Piper Trio, who are so excellent that I'll Google them to see where they're playing next. At times, their music overpowers even the entire ensemble, but that's more the ensemble's fault for not projecting more. Also, on a couple of tunes where Brian Piper sings a solo while playing the keyboards, I wish he had a mic so that we all can hear him better.
Among the vocalists, the voices range from passable to excellent. It's wonderful to have Tim Cahill's lovely tenor back in Big D rather than way off in the Big Apple, but it's a real head scratcher why Blake Davidson, who has the most legit pipes on stage, is only featured in the opening and closing numbers, rather than having him showcase more songs.
Maurice Johnson is a revelation as the increasingly drunker Johnny Cantone. He not only has beautifully smooth vocals, but also has great subtle energy and facial expressions that truly sell his songs. When the entire ensemble sings together, they have terrific energy, too, especially in "Strike Up the Band", but in "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and "Ain't She Sweet", the harmonies completely drown out the melody.
All four of the female singers either need to project more or get closer to their mics, though Amanda Ridout finally "brings it" with her powerhouse belting of "Blues in the Night", and Christine Phelan sings a beautiful rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (which unfortunately is marred by the stage doorkeeper futzing with the Christmas tree upstage).
Alex Ross shows the best acting range in his comedic bits and obvious disappointment at not getting the featured performance he has been promised.
Costume Designer Kristin N. Moore appears to have found actual vintage costumes for the women, and, though the outfits are beautiful, Alexis Henderson's and Christine Phelan's dresses are just too tight on them. The men ensemble's jackets make me think of the von Trapp Family Singers - which is kind of cute.
One of the vintage mics on the sound effects table gives an annoying feedback buzz whenever it's turned on. After it did that twice, Scott Zenreich should have just left it alone, instead of testing it every ten minutes or so, and thereby jolting the audience back into the real world.
Towards the end of the show, the company sings a lovely rendition of "I'll Be Seeing You", which, normally, indicates the end of a show. Instead, the show continues for another confusing ten minutes, with the characters going their separate ways. Finally, only the character of the stage doorkeeper is left onstage, but the audience can clearly hear the other actors backstage, talking. When the show finally ends, the audience is confused by the previous two false endings, and so the applause has to be started by these same actors who are backstage.
I had never heard of this show before, so before writing this review, I went to (forgive me) Wikipedia to look it up. Director William R. Park has cut characters and subplots from the original show, so why not cut these unnecessary bookends of action before and after the singing, as well? It would make for a tighter, shorter, more energetic and more understandable show.
Though the songs are timeless, and probably more recognizable by younger people than you'd assume, I tend to feel like a teenager when I seat myself in an audience of people who probably joined AARP over 25 years ago. That's a shame, too, because great music never goes out of style. This is a good family-friendly show to take not just your parents and grandparents to, but also your kids, so that they too can learn to appreciate these great classics.
THE 1940'S RADIO HOUR
PFAMILY ARTS Theater, 4017 Preston Road #544, LakeSide Market
Plano, TX 75093
Runs through February 26th
Thursdays at 7:30 pm
Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00 pm
Saturday matinees at 2:30 pm
Tickets / Reservations / Box Office: 972 378 1234