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Radio Hour fantastic holiday offering

Fri, Nov 29th, 2002
Posted in Features

One of the tastiest treats available in Fillmore County this holiday season is the Commonweal's final play of the year. The 1940's Radio Hour. In a formula oddly similar to the highly successful television show, Seinfeld, the new play, which opened November 22, offers quirky characters, lots of laughs, with only the barest wisp of a plot to hold the fun together.

And that description doesn't even touch on the music. I didn't keep count, but the program lists twenty one well-known radio hits from the 1940's. Gentle hits like "I'll Never Smile Again," along with bouncy numbers like "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo" kept the preview audience humming and swaying.

The story takes place in a single evening, December 21, 1942, in the Hotel Astor's Algonquin Room in New York city. The early part of the play involves the gathering of the "usual suspects", the regular performers in a weekly, live radio show. The audience is given just enough information about each of the characters to know that these are, indeed, people with lives and struggles. Biff Baker (Mike Long) shows up in his military uniform; he has completed pilot's training and will ship out in the morning. No wonder his girlfriend, Connie Miller (Keely Wolter) seems sad and remote during the broadcast.

Johnny Cantone (Phil Wilcox), a popular Sinatra-wannabe, is unable to completely hide a drinking problem. The sweet, steadfast Ann Collier (Carla Noack) never loses her cool, but opens the emotional door a crack when she addresses her soldier, wherever he is, during the broadcast. Thom Pinault gives a delightful performance as Pops Bailey, the station's ruffled, cigar-smoking sound engineer, who runs a gambling business on the side.

But the play is not about any of these troubles. It is about good music, familiar humor, (question: Mind if I smoke? answer: I don't care if you burn!) and the resilience of the good people at home while the country was engaged in war overseas.

Stealing the show is Christine Winkler as Ginger Brooks. Winkler has the look and sound of the 1940's down to an art with her blonde curls piled high atop her head and ever-present chewing gum. Her character, an appealing combination of warm-heartedness and street smarts, lights up the stage like Christmas tinsel. Her sultry music and dance number, "Blues in the Night", was flawless, even on preview night.Also very well-cast is Eric Knutson as Neal Tilden, a comic who aspires to be a serious crooner. He would love nothing more than to be the next "babe magnet" when Johnny Cantone leaves for Hollywood. But without even trying, Neal is always funny. I thought some audience members were going to hyperventilate from laughter during some of his scenes, particularly the one where he tries (unsuccessfully) to offer a stirring rendition of "Blue Moon."

Ben Gorman makes a huge leap from Renfield, the madman in Dracula to lovable Wally Fergusson, bumbling delivery boy, secretly hoping and rehearsing for his moment on stage.

Trying to hold this cast of likable characters together is the radio show's manager, Clifton Feddington, (Hal Cropp, dapper and cute with a curly perm). A true businessman, Feddington can't resist slipping in plugs for the show's sponsors, even at inappropriate times.

Making the play even more fun is the fact that the audience gets to play the part of the radio show audience, complete with "Applause" cue cards. The script has actors using the space freely, with Ginger Brooks even running to the back of the theater after announcing a need for the restroom.

At the risk of using a cliche, this truly is a play for all ages. You can bring your kids! In fact, two young boys (under ten) seated behind me loved it, if their giggles were any indication

All in all, Radio Hour is a fantastic, light, holiday offering, culminating in a touching rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," by Noack. A welcome reprieve from heavy messages and symbolism, the play is an oddly touching reminder that there have been other times in our country's history that the thought of war was prevalent. But Christmas still comes, we string lights, and the spirit of the common person prevails. The 1940's Radio Hour runs through December 22 at the Commonweal Theater in Lanesboro.

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