Review: The 1940s Radio Hour by Wimberley Players
by Michael Meigs
Can there by anyone who doesn't appreciate the warm sepia glow of old time radio broadcasts? Of course, many favorite films from the 1930s and 1940s provide a similar feeling of nostalgia, but their images make a different experience. An old-time radio broadcast was magic because it came right into your home and into your head. Millions of Americans shared the experience of being, literally, "the radio audience" -- from audire, Latin, "to listen."
Those recordings and films remain enshrined in American memory, in part because of the portrayal of a simpler America -- one where folks were decent, did their duty, and agreed that America was headed for a brighter day, no matter how difficult the present circumstances. One proof of that mythic permanence in the American consciousness: this happy little warm kaleidoscope of a musical play evokes Christmastime in 1942 at a rundown radio studio in New York City, 38 years earlier. The play premiered in late 1979 -- 28 years ago.
Director Jennifer McKenna and the Wimberley Players do a fine job of creating the story, which starts gradually as the radio players arrive, chat, bicker and joke. This is a big cast -- thirteen players and seven musicians -- and most of them are onstage throughout. That requires a lot of blocking and a lot of concentration, helped out by the superbly designed and finished set. The theatre audience becomes the studio audience, responding appropriately to the applause signs. They get involved in all those secondary stories and relationships unfolding behind the folks currently talking into the big old clunky microphones down front.
And there's a lot of music. The program lists twenty-one numbers, starting with the Glenn Miller/Tex Beneke swing tune "I Got A Gal from Kalamazoo," then mixing ballads, up-tempo numbers and seasonal songs. Laura Cannon, Alexandra Russo and Julie Dearrington do a spot-on rendition of the Andrews sisters' "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy."
This is no easy undertaking, because the Wimberley performers are stretching themselves to meet the greats. The collective memories of the theatre audience are going to recall every nuance used by Sinatra or Garland or Crosby. Laura Cannon charms as a reincarnation of a bouncy young ingenue similar to Betty Hutton as she does a version of Sammy Kaye's 1941 chart-buster "Daddy." Sean Palmer as trumpeter Biff Baker, on his way to the Army, has got great presence and a resounding, pleasant voice -- even if his uniform isn't World War II issue!
Dan Stephens is craggy and attractive as the melodious regular crooner on the show, increasingly inebriated as the show goes on. Friends who accompanied me to the show were delighted to find out afterward that he's the minister of music at the First Baptist Church in Wimberley.
Gary Yowell's portrayal of the hassled studio boss Clifton Feddington was amusing and Derek Smootz was the self-important second banana and sound effects guy. Ben Wright sang and clowned. Abreeta Goode laid down a rich "Blues in The Night."
I very much liked Alexandra Russo as the dizzy Ginger, complete with the Carmen Rivera headdress at one point. She delivered a heartfelt version of "I Got It Bad."
My favorite, though, was Juli Dearrington's rendition of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," done with impeccable phrasing, dignity and feeling. Playwright Jones stretched things just a bit there, because Judy Garland sang it in the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis.But it was indeed a huge hit with American servicemen overseas.
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