"The 1940s Radio Hour" at Sixth Street Playhouse, Santa Rosa CA

“The 1940s Radio Hour” by Walton Jones
Sixth Street Playhouse, GK Hardt Theatre
Santa Rosa CA

Photo by Raina Chazankin: (left to right) James Pelican (seated), Kelsey Mielle Byrne, Barry Riggins, Katie Kelley

Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo

For history buffs of the WWII era, and those fortunate enough to remember 1942 and the golden days of radio, “The 1940s Radio Hour” may not recapture those times in every way. But for theatre-goers looking for a unique evening of nostalgic and lively entertainment, with flashes of truly spectacular talent on display, they need look no further than Sixth Street Playhouse’s GK Hardt Theatre.

“The 1940s Radio Hour” originated at the Yale School of Drama in 1974. The first performance included then-student and luminary-to-be Meryl Streep. The show became a tremendous hit, and today there are hundreds of individual productions staged each year. The plotline and how it unfolds could be taken straight from an old showbiz movie, with all the usual suspects: talented youngster, crotchety but lovable producer, sexy siren, comic goofball, and, of course, those small-time performers looking for their “big break”. The story in a nutshell: it’s close to Christmastime 1942. At the Hotel Astor’s storied Algonquin Room in New York City, it’s even closer to airtime for radio station WOV’s weekly “Variety Cavalcade”. In just minutes the show goes live, but is the cast and crew ready?

“Radio Hour” wants to take us on a nostalgic journey to another time, but in Sixth Street’s production, attempts to recreate the WWII era only take us partway to our destination. For example, much of the women’s wardrobe by costume designer Tracy Hinman Sigrist appears to be from at least a decade later, maybe the 1950s (saddle shoes and long flowing skirts) or even the 1970s (handkerchief hem disco dresses). Where are those ever-present big Joan Crawford-type shoulders we long to see? The structured up-dos? The influence of military style that was everywhere in those days?

Other period details are lacking in some aspects of the music. The onstage musicians appear challenged in depicting the “Big Band” era, a time when artists like Glenn Miller and Harry James dominated the airwaves. Hallmarks of the Big Band sound - the use of a tenor sax, tight instrumental harmonies and crisp melodic horn sections - are sadly missing at times, but the show is redeemed. More than worth the price of admission are the musical stylings of Sonya Distel as Ann Collier, Kori Parlett as Geneva Lee Browne, and Katie Kelley as Ginger Brooks. Santa Rosa’s own rising star, 14-year-old Barry Riggins, dazzles in the “promising youngster” role of B.J. Miller. Not-to-be-missed are Distel’s smoky rendition of “Old Black Magic”; Parlett’s torch song “I Got It Bad”; and Riggins’ powerful “You Go to My Head”. Wonderful group treatments of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “I’ll Be Seeing You” do musical justice to these classics. Also delivering standout performances are James Pelican in a pleasing comic turn as the zany Neal Tilden, and Dwayne Stincelli as frazzled broadcast producer Clifton Feddington.

Although it may fall short in certain areas of costumes and music, strong period authenticity is abundant in most other areas of “Radio Hour”. Technical aspects of sound, lighting, and especially set design by renowned architect Paul Gilger, effectively serve the setting. Artifacts like microphones and furniture, and some other vital elements of the production are faithful to the time. The comedy routines and radio commercials used in the story are based directly on those found in radio station archives. Especially delightful is the use of Foley – the art of reproducing everyday sounds on radio. We see actual Foley equipment in action, and it’s fascinating to watch.

Director Michael Fontaine, a regional theater veteran, could perhaps have been a bit more meticulous in his directing and research. “Radio Hour” suffers from the all too-common first act lethargy, but the second act is another story – it’s like a completely different show and makes it all worthwhile.

Even if it’s not a time machine, and doesn’t quite take you all the way back to 1942, “The 1940s Radio Hour” at Sixth Street will leave you longing for more – just one more song “for the boys”.

When: November 12 to December 12, 2010
8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays
2 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. Saturdays beginning November 20
No performance on Thanksgiving Day, November 25
Tickets: $15 to $39
Location: 6th Street Playhouse – GK Hardt Theatre
52 West 6th Street, in Santa Rosa’s historic Railroad Square
Phone: 707-523-4185
Website: www.6thstreetplayhouse.com