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Looking Back 

Foreign attacks against the United States are very much in the air and lend an unexpected urgency to a play like 1940's Radio Hour (recently revived by Prime Time Productions at St. Clement of Rome Church in Metairie). Of course, Special Forces in Afghanistan are a far cry from a vast war on two fronts. But, the image of those twin towers crashing to the ground and the terrified crowds fleeing in the streets of Manhattan was equal to Pearl Harbor as an omen of immediate danger.

1940's Radio Hour follows a group of entertainers and technicians as they prepare for and perform on WOV's Manhattan Variety Cavalcade on Dec. 21, 1942. One of the group, a trumpeter named Biff, is wearing an Army Air Corps uniform. He has enlisted and will be leaving soon for the front.

Watching this likable, disorganized troupe present their hour of live entertainment -- with its strange mixture of silliness and sincerity, its refreshing lack of pretension and constricting lack of refinement -- I could not help thinking about the enemy.

In my mind, I saw the row on row of jackboots, stamping in machinelike precision. How could that ruthlessly efficient, highly centralized dictatorship fail to crush such a slipshod and scattered society as ours.

That thought, in turn, called up a lecture I heard once about the battle of Marathon, in which 9,000 citizens of 5th century Athens defeated the invading army (50,000 strong) of the Persian king Darius. What defeated the Persians, the speaker said, was the Greek temple. He meant that the columns of the Greek temple are unique, curved, each one slightly different. They are harmonized in a united effort. They are a democracy. Whereas, the temples of the older, Eastern empires are supported by columns that are simply straight sticks, interchangeable. The phalanx of individual citizens was stronger than the massed army of slaves.

Why have we drifted off to 5th century Greece? Because, while watching 1940's Radio Hour, in this post 9/11 frame of mind, I felt it revealed a similar hidden strength of our unregimented republic. More specifically, while listening to the irrepressible and irresistible outpourings of Tin Pan Alley, I understood that the giant fascist war machine, with its mechanical stamp, stamp, stamp of boots was defeated, in a sense, by American syncopation. "Deutscheland Deutscheland Uber Alles" ran aground and was wrecked on the shoals of "The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B."

If that seems like quite a burden to load on such a slight musical revue, don't blame me, blame Osama Bin Laden.

In any case, 1940's Radio Hour is pure Americana, of the New York show-biz variety -- which is to say, it has roots in a real world, but is dramatically heightened in the direction of kitsch stereotypes: Pops (Gary Crowley), the ex-Vaudevillean, now a clean-up man with a weakness for playing the ponies; Wally (Adam Carl Peyton), the gofer determined to break into the big time; Mr. Feddington (John Joly), the harried producer forever in search of a bromo to quiet his nerves, etc.

The essential delight of the show lies in the music, and director John Lovett assembled a knock-out ensemble for the purpose. A great nine-piece band, led by David Cortello, backed a series of classic '40s hits. The chanteuses were smashing, a vocal and visual treat (thanks, in part, to the costumes by James Comeaux, Cindy Duplass and Susan Monnot). Christine Pepperman, Nicole Teague, Ellen Flohberger and Mariel Toscano had the pipes and the pizzazz when singing solo or in those fabulous close harmony numbers. The boys --Adam Carl Peyton, Carlin Benz, Scott Sauber and Kirk Frady -- did themselves proud as well. John Joly, Gary Crowley, James Comeaux and Donald Loupe Jr. helped to create a convivial, comic backdrop for the vocal pyrotechnics.

Meanwhile, there is an intriguing footnote to this nostalgic journey into radio land. Fred Kasten, program manager at pubic radio station WWNO, has launched what someday might be called the 2000's Radio Hour. Currently it goes by the name Crescent City and it's taped before a live audience at Le Chat Noir.

For this inaugural year, four shows are planned, each geared to a holiday event. The first two celebrated Super Bowl and Jazz Fest. The next in the series will be taped this fall for broadcast around Halloween. Emcee Ronnie Virgets presents a bill of regulars, like Ricky Graham and the Live Nude Radio Players, as well as special guests. Astral Project, known as the World's Greatest House Band, backs up top local vocalists. And a good time is had by all.

So, if you missed 1940's Radio Hour, there's still time to be part of the nostalgia of tomorrow.

click to enlarge Donald Loupe Jr. and Christine Pepperman helped provide a timely slice of Americana in Prime Time Productions' recent revival of 1940?s Radio Hour at St. Clement Church.
  • Donald Loupe Jr. and Christine Pepperman helped provide a timely slice of Americana in Prime Time Productions' recent revival of 1940?s Radio Hour at St. Clement Church.
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