Theater Review: Pa. Playhouse ‘Radio Hour’ salutes the troops
If you are a fan of the Big Band Era, and the rousing music it produced, you are going to love Pennsylvania Playhouse’s Christmas production of “The 1940’s Radio Hour,” running through Dec. 18, 390 Illick’s Mill Rd., Bethlehem.
The show is set in a fictional New York radio station, WOV, as in “V for Victory,” on Dec. 21, 1942. The two-act play written by Walton Jones, originally presented at the Yale Repertory Theatre, made it to Broadway by way of Arena Stage, Washington, D.C.
On the surface, “Radio Hour” is a tribute to the World War II era when radio was what kept the nation together, listening to favorite programs, dancing to some of the best orchestras and singers in the world, and enduring some of the worst commercials. Director Beth Breiner considers the play to be much more: “… look more closely at it and you’ll find a model of how people withstand, persist and conquer difficult times.”
With some of the most unique staging to be found anywhere, “Radio Hour” features an eight-piece orchestra on stage with a cast of 14 energetic actors, singers and dancers who, in the Dec. 3 performance for this review, obviously loved what they were doing.
Before the radio program begins, the orchestra belts out “Take the A Train” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.” It’s hard not to get up and dance. All in all, the musicians play more than 20 arrangements, from “Kalamazoo” to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Strike Up the Band.” This group could have competed with some of the best jazz bands in the 1930s and ‘40s.
A short Act One introduces the radio station performers, and gives a hint to their characters and relationships. They are late, unfocused, quarrelsome and temperamental. Attempts at rehearsal turn into bedlam. In Act Two, they are miraculously transformed, coming together in a most entertaining way to bring holiday cheer and optimism to the folks listening at home, and the playgoers, who become the studio audience.
Breiner has captured not only the mood but also the details of the period, right down to the females’ bright red nail polish and black seams on the back of their hosiery. In her quest for authenticity, she also notes that the casting of music director and pianist Lucille Kincaid as the orchestra leader is a salute to the women who managed to break the barrier as leaders of all-male bands in the 1940s.
In “Radio Hour” there are no stars, just a very talented ensemble, but several performers do stand out. Brian Richichi is hysterical as Neal, the station’s comedian. In one segment reminiscent of a two-man vaudeville routine, he does a pretty good impression of Lou Costello trying to tell a joke to his straight man. His facial expressions, broad gestures and campy shenanigans are priceless. Richichi also turns out to be a surprisingly good “sensitive balladeer.”
Deborah D’Haiti’s rendition of “A Tisket A Tasket” as radio star Geneva is impressive, as is the sensitive interpretation of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Michelle Hubbard (Ann).
Ted Rewak is totally believable as the charming, yet irresponsible featured singer Johnny Cantone. He engages the studio audience, winking, waving and presenting a rose to one of the ladies in the first row.
Vanessa Ruggiero (Connie) not only sings, she does most of the dancing. She is particularly memorable in her patriotic red, white and blue costume, tap dancing to “Strike Up the Band.”
The radio program ends fittingly with the company singing “I’ll Be Seeing You,” dedicated to the boys at the front, definitely relevant in this Christmas season.