Saturday, October 15, 2011

Actors Co-op's THE 1940'S RADIO HOUR

Nathan Bell, Kimi Walker, Michael Downing, and
Jeffrey Scott Parsons. Photos by Lindsay Schnebly

Actors Co-op has opened its 20th season with a tried and true musical that previously had the distinction of being its longest-running show ever, The 1940’s Radio Hour. It’s not hard to see why either, for it contains some of the best songs written during the Big Band era, and its message of hope, patriotism and sacrifice is one that still rings true today. Filled with standards like “Our Love is Here to Stay,” “I’ll Never Smile Again,” “Blues in the Night,” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” it easily takes you back to the time when radio was king, rationing was the norm, and people rallied together to help each other get by.

It’s December 21, 1942 and radio station WOV and the Mutual Manhattan Variety Cavalcade are getting ready for their holiday broadcast live from the Hotel Astor’s Algonquin Room. Everything is a flurry of activity as the station personnel begin to arrive welcomed by Pops (Gary Ballard), the old timer who works the door and serves up laughs as a bookie on the side. General Manager Clifton Feddington (Steve Gustafson), with his perennial ulcer, is crazed as usual, and stage manager Lou Cohn (Gus Corrado) is whipping everyone into place.

Gary Ballard, Gus Corrado and Ben Ryan

The “everyone” includes Cavalcade family members like Ann Collier (Catherine Gray), the show’s hometown heart & soul, a down to earth gal with a velvety smooth voice, and Johnny Cantone (Jeff Guilfoyle at this performance), her handsome leading man who tends to drink too much to cover his frustrations. There’s also ditzy Ginger Brooks (Gina D’Acciaro), boy-next-door B.J. Gibson (Michael Dye at this performance) and his very peppy sweetheart Connie Miller (Tawny Mertes), comedian Neal Tilden (Brian Habicht), gutsy torch singer Geneva Lee Browne (Kimi Walker), Stanley the sound booth operator (Thomas Chavira), trumpet player Biff Baker (Nathan Bell) who is about to go into the Armed Forces, and young delivery boy Wally Ferguson (Ben Ryan), who would love to get his very first break in the biz.

There is great affection among the bunch and the details we learn about the characters, both from the action onstage as well as in the Variety Cavalcade “program,” make it an even more personal experience. It starts from the moment you walk into the theatre with Mark Svastics’ terrific set design, Paula Higgins’ costumes, and Krys Fehervari’s hair and make-up, all a visual delight. Pops is already in place and the action slowly winds its way from background atmosphere to show time as you watch. The effect is friendly and inviting, and director Nan McNamara keeps the energetic pace up throughout the show without making it chaotic or overwhelming.

Gray and Walker score big in the vocal department; Gray with “Old Black Magic” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and Walker in “Rose of the Rio Grande” and “I Got It Bad,” and the company also captures the distinct sound of the 40’s with its choral blend on numbers like “Kalamazoo” and “Ain’t She Sweet.” Veteran actors Ballard, Gustafson and Corrado give self-assured performances that provide humor (Corrado is also the foley artist) and heart as only good character men can, and Ballard has one of the most poignant moments at the end of the show that gets me every time.

Linda Kerns (Zootie) musical directs and also leads the onstage big band orchestra. The fun choreography, complete with tap dancing, sparklers and the American flag, is by Julie Hall.

The 1940’s Radio Hour runs through November 13, 2011 in the Actors Co-op’s Crossley Theatre in Hollywood. Click Here for tickets and information.

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