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Radio's golden 'Hour'

Los Altos Stage Company's '1940s Radio Hour' is retro fun

If I say my favorite thing about Los Altos Stage Company's "The 1940s Radio Hour" might be the program, it's not meant to reflect negatively on the performance itself. To the contrary: It's a very enjoyable show, and part of what makes it enjoyable is the amount of delightful detail put into the production as a whole, including a fabulous set by Andrew Breithaupt, appealing costumes by Y. Sharon Peng and that marvelous program-within-a-program that imitates the look of a vintage Broadway Playbill and contains "biographies" of the fictional characters on stage, as well as retro ads for Coca Cola and Eskimo Pie.

"The 1940s Radio Hour" might not have the most imaginative title but it does pretty much tell you what you can expect: a recreation of a yuletide radio variety show airing in 1942 Manhattan (and to the troops overseas listening via shortwave radios). The show, written by Walton Jones, is a musical in that it incorporates a number of song-and-dance routines. The songs, though, are all jazz and pop standards, such as "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," "Stormy Weather" and "Blues in the Night," delivered concert-style. It doesn't have much of a storyline in the traditional sense, either, but rather gives audiences a brief, immersive window into a moment in time and enough insight into the characters to make them interesting, in addition to pleasant purveyors of classic music.

The show starts before the radio broadcast goes "live," as doorman Pops (Gary Landis) grumbles, takes racing bets over the station's payphone and brews unbearably strong coffee; host/ boss Clifton Feddington (Ken Boswell) and his right-hand man Lou (John Stephen King) scramble to prepare for the evening's session and wrangle their employees; and delivery boy Wally (Anthony Stephens) dreams of stardom, if only someone would give him his big break. The talent -- singers Johnny Cantone, Ginger Brooks, Connie Miller, B.J. Gibson, Neal Tilden, Ann Collier and Geneva Lee Browne (Michael Rhone, Brigitte Losey, Michelle Skinner, Nathaniel Rothrock, Aaron Hurley, Elizabeth Claire Lawrence and Nique Eagen) and the band, led by pianist Zelda Keys (Music Director Katie Coleman) and featuring trumpeter Biff Baker (Jacob Jackman) -- slowly arrives and the audience starts to glean information about these faces behind the radio microphones.

Alcoholic crooner Johnny fancies himself a peer of Sinatra and boasts about ditching New York for Hollywood. B.J. is the youngest brother of musical siblings and keen on continuing the family tradition. Ann is the classy singer with a wholesome persona who has a bit of a history with rakish Johnny. Neal is the clown who wants a chance to be taken seriously. And so it continues, the various dramas, personality quirks and relationships between the characters promising to spill over into their on-air performances. The pre-broadcast hijinks do start to drag a bit, though, leaving the audience eager to get to the singing and dancing (and it's a long show for a production that has no intermission).

Eventually, the "on-air" button and "applause" signs light up, and it's show time. The majority of the rest of the evening's entertainment is in toe-tapping song form, but the best bits are the advertisements cleverly -- and very humorously -- worked in amongst the songs and skits, delivered expertly by the cast, as well as the various sound effects provided by Lou. And though most of it isn't particularly holidays-related, there are a few Christmas tunes and a gleefully silly radio-play version of "A Christmas Carol."

A few cast members struggled to hit the right notes with their vocal numbers but most of the performances are pretty good, with the reliably-excellent Boswell, the vivacious Losey, and Stephens (who seems to have made a local-theater career out of playing wide-eyed fresh, young fellows) as standouts. Baker, a veteran of pit orchestras who, according to his bio, is unaccustomed to acting, does a charming job stepping into the spotlight as the swoon-worthy horn player who's doing one last broadcast before shipping off with the military. And it's always a treat having the musicians on stage as part of the action.

The show makes plenty of mentions of the war effort (including Baker's poignant send-off) and is very rooted in its 1940s setting but never gets too heavy-handed or looks back at the time period with too much historical perspective or self-importance. There are no major character arcs, lessons learned or much plot developed. Instead, it feels like a genuine peek into the era: a warm and funny snapshot of radio's golden age and a pleasure tuning in to.

What: "The 1940s Radio Hour."

Where: Bus Barn Theater, 97 Hillview Ave., Los Altos.

When: Through Dec. 23, Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 3 p.m.

Cost: $38 general; $20 student.

Info: Go to LASC.

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Like this comment
Posted by David Koff
a resident of another community
on Dec 15, 2017 at 1:36 pm

I love to see other folks around the country keeping the spirit alive of old time radio. We've been doing it as a troupe for almost 20 years and think it's still just as relevant today as it was 70+ years ago!

Keep up the good work, everyone!

David Koff
Artistic Director, Fake Radio
Web Link

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