Monday, November 30, 2009

Artistic Differences captures radio

Lucas Blair and Christina Day
Photo by Divino San Pedro
c/o Artistic Differences Company

If there’s an award for the most remarkable Christmas show of the season, the likeliest candidate this year would be Artistic Differences’ production of “The 1940’s Radio Hour.” It opened on Saturday, November 28, to a sellout crowd, a rarity for the Studio Theatre in Sacramento. A happy touch was a chorus singing Christmas songs in the festive lobby.

In every way it can, the show defies custom. First of all, the show defies definition. You might call it a musical, but a musical is upbeat and brings us a page full of original songs. Instead Radio Hour relies exclusively on 19 old favorites (including the tune for the old Pepsi-Cola commercial), and satirizes the genre. If it requires a label, we’d have to call it a “mocksical.”

Set in the Hotel Astor’s Algonquin Room on December 21, 1942, it offers a “Special Xmas” radio show by the “Mutual Manhattan Variety Cavalcade.” The show is broadcast over the fictional station WOV, an echo of a real New York station, WOR. Backed by a 5-piece band, the show offers lots of singing and some dancing, visible only to the studio audience in those days before TV.

The defiance of orthodoxy begins with the show’s beginning. We don’t get the usual introduction, with a company leader asking us to turn off cell phones and pointing out the location of exits and toilets. (A staff member appeared shortly afterward to supply that ritual and to remind us that cell phones weren’t available in the forties.) Instead we get an unidentified Pops Bailey (Jes Gonzalez) fussing with an offstage phone and Stanley (Devon Allen), part of the crew, climbing a ladder to slip gels into spotlights. For a while we don’t know whether we’re watching the show or not.

Soon, after backstage managers get finished yelling at each other, we get a five-piece band taking seats in the background as the performers appear, often getting in each other’s way. After much nervous twitching beforehand, the crowd on stage suddenly assumes glowing self-confidence once the show goes on the air. And we in the audience become the studio audience, coached to respond when a flashing “applause” sign gives the signal. Much of the humor comes from seeing how the performers relate to each other when on the air and, in contrast, when not.

Among the lead performers are Martin Beal as a Sinatra-esque Johnny Cantone, moaning “Love is Here to Stay.” Bevin Bell-Hall, as the buxom Ginger Brooks, appears first in her slip. Among her numbers is a soulful “Blues in the Night.” Christina Day, as the diminutive Connie Miller, give us “Daddy” and joins the youthful Lucas Blair (as B.J. Gibson) in “How About You.” There’s also the stately Maggie Hollinbeck (also the Artistic Differences’ Artistic Director) as Ann, delivering among others “That Old Black Magic.”

As Ann, Hollinbeck also joins Wally (Benjamin T. Ismail), Neal (Scott Woodard) and Geneva (Naomi Powell) in a sprightly “Ain’t She Sweet.” At one point in the show Neal’s romantic voice fails him when he drops his pants. Biff Baker (Byron Roope) joins the Cavalcade in “Jingle Bells.”

Among the non-singing cast are Richanne Baldridge as Zoot, as well as band conductor and Musical Director; Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly as the officious Clifton; and Ed Gyles Jr. as the bullying Lou Cohn.

None of the cast was even born 67 years ago, in the middle of the last popular war our country fought. But those of us, particularly we who lived in New York at the time, recognize the amazing authenticity of the show. It exudes a “feel” for the times, especially with radio’s sentimental expressions of sympathy for the bathroom and kitchen needs of listeners.

The concern, though, inevitably leads into commercials for products like Cashmere Bouquet soap, Sal Hepatica, Eskimo Pie and Maxwell House Coffee. All that’s missing is Bob Hope singing the praises of Pepsodent toothpaste. Yet for all the folly there’s a serious note, barely touched when one of the characters quits the show to join the military. It was a time when we could demand unconditional surrender from the enemy, not a timetable for returning the troops home.

Additional credit goes to Director Graham S. Green and Choreographer Gino Platina, along with Michael McElroy and Jason McDowell for a simple and effective set.

A cautionary note: this full-length show provides no intermission, probably because the illusion is that we’re “on the air.”

“The 1940’s Radio Hour” continues at The Studio Theatre, 1028 R Street, through December 27. Performances are Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. (No shows on 12/24 and 12/25) Tickets are $18-$20 general, $15-$17 student and senior (65+). Call 916-708-3449 or go to

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