Sunday, December 4, 2011

Faulkner: "The 1940s Radio Hour"

Hands down, the star of Faulkner University Dinner Theatre's The 1940s Radio Hour is the on-stage orchestra -- members of Faulkner's Jazz Band. Directed by Andrew Cook as the play's "Zoot Doubleman Orchestra", the nine member ensemble's solid arrangements of Big Band Era standards, with brassy riffs on "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" to laid-back sophisticated support to such vocals as "I Got It Bad", transport audiences to a past time with nods of recognition and remembrances.

This is not to diminish the 14-strong cast of triple threat actors-singers-dancers who enliven its 20 songs with clever interpretations, character back stories provided by the script's thin story line, and impressive vocal strength.

With a running time of two hours without an intermission, director Jason Clark South's company keep the story moving forward and the energy level high.

It's December 21, 1942 at WOV Radio Station in New York. World War II is at its height, and the nation needs its spirits lifted as Christmas approaches. A storm delays some of the entertainers, Pops Bailey [Jordan Berry] runs an of-track betting operation on the station's phones, over-eager delivery boy Wally Fergusson [Jason Morgan] wants a chance to perform, arrogant heartthrob Johnny Cantone [Chase McMichen] yearns for a Hollywood career as he drinks himself into a stupor, trumpet playing soldier Biff Baker [Jon Timbes] is leaving for the European front the next day, diva Geneva Lee Browne [Brooke Brown] is perennially late & demanding, and various others like Neal Tilden [David Brown] are looking for their big break, while the station's owner and on-air voice Clifton A. Feddington [Tony Davison] tries to hold it all together just minutes before a live broadcast.

When the lengthy expository set-up finally segues to the radio program itself (with us being the "live radio audience"), the rest is non-stop songs interspersed with commercials for such "new" products as Pepsi Cola, Cashmere Bouquet soap, Sal Hepatica laxative, Nash automobiles, and others.

As Faulkner continues to adjust to its new theatre, some of the production issues might get ironed out. The ambitiously detailed period set appears cramped as actors maneuver around one another. While some movement establishing character relationships is distracting when placed simultaneously behind a featured singer, the main focus remains on the songs, but the orchestra's volume too often drowns out human voices so lyrics and important dialogue are inaudible.

Nonetheless, both the ensemble and individuals get their times to shine. "Jingle Bells" and a patriotic anthem in "Strike Up The Band" feature the best aspects of the ensemble's blend of voices and peppy energy.

Brittney Johnston as Ginger gives an unexpectedly sultry shoulder-shaking interpretation of "Blues in the Night". Bret Morris as Neal Tilden shines as a substitute in "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and a sensitive "You Go to My Head". Mr. McMichen's "Love is Here to Stay" capitalizes on his rapport with the women in the audience. Novelty numbers like "Chiquita Banana" and songs featuring the insouciance of Abby Roberts as Connie in "Daddy" and "Five O'Clock Whistle" are hits.

Shared credit for show-stopping numbers go to Brooke Brown and Kristy Humphreys. Ms. Brown's spot-on interpretation of the band's arrangement of "I Got It Bad" is so fully committed that it dazzles, and her strong voice lends support to several ensemble and small group tunes. As Ann Collier, Ms. Humphreys is as solid as one can be. Whether in an ensemble or a sextet like "I'll Never Smile Again", or solos "Black Magic" and a heart rending "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", Ms. Humphreys commands attention with intelligent and understated passion, clear diction, and vocal support that set the standard for all.

With The 1940s Radio Hour, Faulkner is ringing in the season with a delightfully nostalgic show that puts smiles on faces and lifts our spirits.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Cloverdale Playhouse: "Holiday Gifts of Words & Music"

The Cloverdale Playhouse will present Holiday Gifts of Words & Music -- three benefit performances for the Playhouse and the Montgomery Chorale.
December 15 & 16 at 7:30 p.m.
December 18 at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets are available online at or by phoning the Box Office at(334) 262-1530 between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays.

Red Door: "The Christmas Letters"

It does not matter what part of the country you live in, The Christmas Letters, now showing at the Red Door Theatre in Union Springs, will touch your heart and make you realize the importance of family at all stages in life.

Adapted from Lee Smith's novel by Paul Ferguson, with music & lyrics by Tommy Goldsmith, Tom House, and Karren Pell, the story is told through a series of Christmas letters from 1944 to 1996, and is punctuated by numerous songs that carry the plot forward or comment on the action. What unfolds through the words of three generations of women is a poignant tale of family experiences we can all identify with -- births & deaths, financial need & prosperity, faithfulness & infidelity, war & peace.

In 1996, Melanie [Valerie Sandlin] picks up the tradition of writing the letters that her mother & grandmother had created, and she reads the first letter from 1944, taking us back to that time when her grandmother Birdie [Beth Egan -- strong and confident in the role, with a fine singing voice] started it all. Picked up later by her mother Mary [Anna Perry], the letters bring us back to 1996 by the end of the play.

We see the crochety great-grandmother Mrs. Pickett [Anne Brabham], Mary's devoted husband Bill [William Harper], their dutiful son Joe [Joseph Crawford], Mary's husband Sandy [Beau Shirley], and assorted family, friends, & neighbors...each of whom impacts the others and plays a role in developing their personalities and determining their behavior.

The songs -- played by the Lighthouse String Ensemble from Troy, AL [they also entertained with a pre-show concert of bluegrass music -- major talent here] -- are as engaging as the story. "Christmas Snow" sets an appropriate winter scene, "A Recipe for Living" gets us into the commitment of the family, "The Flood" evokes both the distress of flooding and the stalwartness of people under duress [as one character says: "Calamity can be a blessing in disguise."], "Mama's Death" helps bring the family together.......through all their trials over five decades, they still "try to get it right" -- and by the end, they do.

With a mixture of experienced and first-time actors, director Tom Salter has created a fine on-stage ensemble. Though the script could benefit from some attention to developing characters and smoothing out time-shifts, the story has been told clearly, and there are a couple of stand-out performances. -- Mr. Harper plays three roles [husband Bill, stuffy teacher Mr. Rutledge, and flambuoyant marriage therapist Peter Waterford], distinguishing each with voice and behavior differences. And Ms. Perry's development of Mary from a child to a middle-aged woman is so gradually developed that we hardly notice the changes; and her clear soprano carries many of the songs.

These are essentially good people who meet the family & social issues head on, and we leave the theatre feeling better for sharing with them.