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Theater Review: The 1940's Radio Hour

Katherine Mumma/Kalamazoo Civic Theatre

The 1940’s Radio Hour, a holiday-themed musical, is playing at the recently reopened Kalamazoo Civic Theatre. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.

Those out for a lively theatre experience featuring period nostalgia, music and dance, might well consider the Civic’s current production.

Although “The 1940’s Radio Hour” comes up short on plot, several talented performers, some lively choreography and a red-hot swing band might be enough to warm up a winter evening.

The show revolves around the preparations for and execution of a radio show, “The Mutual Manhattan Variety Cavalcade”. The setting: a radio studio in late December, 1942. Prior to air time, characters arrive and introduce themselves with bits of conversation or activities on David Kyhn’s cosey, lived in and serviceable multi-level set.

Credit Katherine Mumma/Kalamazoo Civic Theatre

Among the more interesting studio regulars is Pops, played by Ron Dundon, who wipes down communal coffee cups with his used handkerchief. His running card game with sound effects man, Lou, played by Todd Spratt, holds comic appeal and sets the scene for his bookmaking activities and other ongoing distractions for the studio crew.

These and other characters help paint a slice-of-life picture of the radio cast, musicians and studio hands who will hold our attention when the “On-Air” sign lights up.

The show’s weakness is Walton Jones’ book. Despite capable actors on the stage, the book provides little in the way of storyline or leading characters for the audience to invest in.

There are, however, interesting sketches of taxi drivers, errand boys, and others holding day jobs whose ambition is to make it big in show business. Many of these snippets require close attention, as key lines identifying these characters go by quickly.

Many characters in the radio show seem to realize, that “Variety Cavalcade” is a means to an end, and not the top rung on the ladder. Consequently, some are already looking for the next gig.

Include here the Cavalcades’ featured vocalist, Johnny Cantone, played by Jonathan Talmadge. This unhappy drunken singer has crooner’s pipes and an empty pipe dream of Hollywood.

Credit Kalamazoo Civic Theatre

Credit Director/Choreographer, Anthony J. Hamilton with drawing our eye to each actor who speaks, through a gesture or movement. This focus lets the audience know where to look. That’s important since there are up to 20 performers onstage at once and each wears a mask.

The real fun begins when The Zoot Doubleman Orchestra, led by Marie McColley-Kerstetter, starts the Cavalcade with “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo”. Bright vocal harmonies support this local favorite as well as other up-tempo numbers such as “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and the rousing chorus march of “Strike Up the Band”.

The show’s more winsome ballads include standards, such as the upbeat version of “That Old Black Magic” sung by Angela Talmadge, “I Got it Bad”, delivered with feeling by Grace Carroll, and a bumpy grindy “Blues in the Night” by Sara Sherman.

At the performance last Sunday, it was difficult to discern all the lyrics over the orchestra. Hopefully microphone adjustments will provide a better sound mix in the future.

The evening’s liveliest moments occur when as Megan Grace Ludwig and Luke James Cloherty turn the studio into a dance floor. Working solo, or as a pair, these two light up the stage with tap and swing moves in numbers such as “How About You”, “You Go to My Head” and the blistering “Five O’Clock Jump”.

A few clever radio commercials, including the aforementioned Sherman’s slinky, sexy homage to Eskimo Pies, and a greatly abbreviated performance of “A Christmas Carol”, with audio atmosphere from the Foley artists, help to create a fully believable and engaging Radio Hour.

A moving nod to the troops overseas by a young soldier, played by Dawson Schmidt, along with a chorus of “Jingle Bells”, round out what should be an enjoyable evening for imaginary audiences of the airwaves, as well as for those returning to the Civic Theatre.

Credit Kalamazoo Civic Theatre

Cara Lieurance is the local host of NPR's All Things Considered on 1021 WMUK and covers local arts & culture on Let's Hear It on 89.9 Classical WMUK weekday mornings at 10 - 11 am.
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