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.