Many Christmas stories look fondly at the past and New Village Arts Theatre’s production of The 1940’s Radio Hour is no exception. Former Carlsbad resident Walton Jones’ 1979 script to the Broadway play with music pays homage to tunes and entertainment from the first half of the 20th century. Instead of being a stuffy period piece, Dana Case’s direction makes the evening one with Yuletide cheer.
The show revolves around the people involved with the fictitious WOV audio program, the Mutual Manhattan Variety Cavalcade. Hosted by the professionally smooth-talking general manager, Clifton A. Feddington (Daren Scott), the entertainers perform a special broadcast for troops fighting overseas in World War II. Stars such as egotistical featured singer, Johnny Cantone (Eric M. Casalini), confident bombshell, Ginger Brooks (Marlene Montes) and a goodhearted patriotic airman, BJ Gibson (Zackary Scot Wolfe), attempt to bring some joy to the soldiers listening to the station.
The 90 minute one act is structured into three parts: a lengthy introduction, the radio broadcast and a brief heart-tugging epilogue. Case directs the opening in an intentionally low key way with nothing too flashy happening onstage.
Jones makes the situations early on work, mostly because of his sense of humor. He turns certain situations that could have been too predictable in another playwright’s hands refreshingly funny. A main example is the role of the drugstore delivery boy, Wally Ferguson (Jake Bradford). Although it is obvious that the optimistic teen will eventually be featured on the radio, the way he gets his big break is hilariously creative.
Once the ensemble takes their places on Kelly Kissinger’s intimate and detailed set, the atmosphere becomes quite lively. Curtis Mueller gives the space a jazzy concert feel with use of dark blue lighting while Zoot Doubleman (music director, Tony Houck) helps energize the night with his spirited work.
Houck adapts to different styles of music using his piano and trumpet playing skills during songs such as “Love is Here to Stay,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Strike Up the Band.” He even snags in some clever in-jokes including a musical reference to “Miss Gulch” from “The Wizard of Oz.”
Costumes courtesy of Katie Bishop help contribute to the personalities of the radio players. The cast members harmonize exquisitely during the group numbers. Bradford, Casalini, Montes, Wolfe, Michael Kelly, Danielle Levas and Kelly Derouin all sing strongly with each other and as soloists.
Levas plays singer/dancer Connie Miller and serves as a choreographer for the interpretation. She handles swing and tap dancing with impressive ease, which makes for visually striking scenes.
Two actors really get to standout in the final moments after the Cavalcade comes to an end. Scott deserves to be singled out since he changes the most dramatically during each section of The 1940’s Radio Hour. Before he becomes the master of ceremonies, Clifton comes across as a no nonsense neurotic boss who cannot deal with stress. Scott not only makes his transition believable, but he also gets to show a sympathetically generous side in the conclusion.
Jack Missett might not have a lot of spoken lines as stage manager, Pops Bailey, but he conveys so much with his reactions to the special eve. Missett’s non-verbal acting in the resolution feels reminiscent to the denouement of a bittersweet Charlie Chaplin classic.
This mostly family friendly event is a sincerely festive celebration in a season full of live high quality holiday tales. Jones wrote a follow-up entitled A 1940’s Radio Christmas Carol. Perhaps Case and the artists should consider reuniting for another dose of winter enchantment.