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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Review: On the Air

Posted By on Tue, Jun 7, 2011 at 1:50 PM

The Sherman tank in front of the theater primes you for the nostalgia on stage. On the Air, at the National World War II Museum, is an upbeat musical revue set in a New Orleans radio studio in 1945.

The show features a dynamite local cast, who clown appealingly and hold the audience spellbound with a series of period hit songs. This is a simple entertainment, but it never feels skimpy. Furthermore, there’s a second layer of nostalgia: most of us listened to radio shows, but few have actually been in a radio audience.

Writer Sean Patterson, who co-directed with Victoria Reed, downplayed the tragic side of “a world in flames”. But he didn’t flinch entirely, for Air takes place on Mother’s Day. And, of course, many a mother was anxious for a son who was in harm’s way.

Bob Edes Jr. in On the Air.
  • Bob Edes Jr. in On the Air.
As the show begins, the actors enter into a ramshackle studio — the gals: Melba Tompkins (Troi Bechet), her daughter Dorothy (Idella Johnson), Betty Lou Fairchild (Courtney Boe) and the men: sound effects mastermind Buddy Bordelon (Gary Rucker) and head honcho Frank Daniel (Bob Edes Jr.).

These veteran troupers are in top form. It’s unfair to single any performer, since all deserve a spot in the winner’s circle, but I was particularly struck by Bechet, who sang with even more than her usual confidence and strength. During her solo “God Bless the Child” you could hear a pin drop.

In between musical numbers and patter, there are commercials for Octagon Soap, the show’s sponsor. Hubig’s Pies (“The Sweet Taste of New Orleans”) is a local sponsor, but the national firm eclipses the local little guy.

The plot centers on Dorothy and her mom Melba. When Dorothy first enters Mom greets her with warmth and pride, because she thinks Dorothy has just returned from a long singing tour. In fact, as we later learn, it was not a singing tour at all — although it might have been, to judge from the pizzazz Dorothy shows in her Carmen-Miranda-style rendition of “Chattanooga Choo Choo. Alison Parker and Victoria Reed designed the Latin cutie’s outfit — as well as all the other attractive costumes.

Boe, a pert blond chanteuse, takes the spotlight as Little “Boe” Peep (who lost her jeep). In another number, she astonishes everyone by stripping off a prim suit to reveal fringed, lingerie for “I Wish I Could Shimmy like My Sister Kate." In fact, as she demonstrates, she can and even more so!

In and around the song numbers, we’re treated to the kind of jokes that require and get a rimshot from the drummer. For example, when Bordelon says: “A woman asked me if she should have children after 35. I told her, no, you should stop at two!”

Near the end of the show, Dorothy reenters the studio — wearing a WAC uniform. She confesses to her Mom that she lied. She’d never been on tour. She was off in basic training. For the first time, the war comes home in a real flesh and blood way. Melba will have to say goodbye to her daughter, like so many mothers and hope and pray she’ll see her again.

This revelation isn’t played like a big sentimental, get-out-your-handkerchief moment. But it’s a reminder that war is hell. And World War II was no exception. ON THE AIR serves up dollops of fun and fine music. It’s an excellent cabaret.


On the Air

Stage Door Canteen, National World War II Museum,
945 Magazine St., 528-1944

8 p.m., Fri.-Sat.; 11 a.m. Sun., through June 26

$30; $60 with dinner or brunch included (call theater for details)

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