At Rivertown Rep, the broadcast studio (created by Chad Talkington) was a snazzy Art Deco joint, mostly taken up by a bandstand. A glassed-in control booth topped by an electric "Applause" sign sat at the peak of this foothill of music stands. A sound effects desk flanked it on one side, while a Coke dispenser flanked it on the other (Cokes would cost a nickel, if the machine worked, but it was out of order). A small artificial Christmas tree on top of the Coke dispenser reminded us of the Yuletide season.
We, the Rivertown audience, were converted, through the magic of theatrical suggestion, into a live radio audience. First, we witnessed a special Christmas broadcast to the World War II troops. This public service -- chock full of advertisements by companies involved in the war effort -- comprised the entire first act of the play. It boasted nine vintage songs, such as "White Christmas," "Embraceable You" and "Chattanooga Choo-Choo." Some of the ads were of hilariously questionable patriotism, including a bulletin warning of gingivitis attacks, which resulted in bleeding gums!
Of course, the idea that "our boys" were out there fighting the good war on our behalf resonated weirdly, given the disturbing news that comes in each day from Iraq. The "book" of this musical is not quite a book; it's more a collection of character sketches and comic turns. But the characters are an entertaining group of show biz pros, each with particular flairs and faults, hopes and illusions. Among them, a young go-fer who wants to be in the show, a headliner who is too fond of the sauce, and most pointedly -- like the skull at the feast -- a trumpet player wearing his military uniform. He'll be leaving soon for the front. In addition to finding himself in harm's way, of course, the trumpeter will suffer the pangs of separation, not to mention jealousy -- poignantly captured by the Andrews Sisters' "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else but Me)."
After the special broadcast to the troops, but before the regular national broadcast, the emcee declared the end of act one and called for an intermission. During the break, I had the misfortune of glancing through the playbill and noticing that the second act featured nearly three times as many tunes as the first, all from the same hit parade of Tin Pan Alley classics. While there was much I enjoyed in the first act, the skimpy plot and formidable list of songs seemed to presage a nostalgic musical revue rather than the conclusion of a play. My impulse to flee was calmed by the subtler movement of sidling up to the bar in the lobby.
In fact, act two was a pleasant (though somewhat long) mix of song, dance and comic sketches. WWII did not completely vanish. For instance, there were song numbers, such as "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy From Company B" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas." But the focus definitely shifted. A phone-in giveaway of an Electrolux refrigerator is funny, even if you've almost forgotten there's a big, bad war on. But the humor doesn't have the same edge as when the Nash Automobile Company brags to the GIs in the trenches (and their home-front relatives) about making weapons. Among the standouts in the cast of The 1940's Radio Hour were wry, petulant boss man Walter Bost, elastic-limbed song-and-dance man Gary Rucker and severely hammered star crooner Kyle Daigrepont. A tip of the hat to the sterling songstresses: Yalonda Ratcliff, Helen Blanke and Casey Leigh Thompson (who also created the often amusing choreography). Another tip of the hat to conductor Dolly Doubleman (Lori Dewitt) and her "Most Versatile Band in the Land." Last, but by no means least, a tip of the hat to director Stocker Fontelieu, who assembled the fine cast and put them through their paces.