By Bridgette M. Redman
The Capital TheatreWorks proved that a radio show can be as pleasing to the eyes as it is to the ears.
The “1940s Radio Variety Show” combines four radio show classics with period commercials, singing and a delightful soap opera-style story between the radio show actors that makes the evening far more of a traditional play than the variety show title might lead one to believe.
Vaguely reminiscent of Joseph Zettelmaier’s “It Came From Mars,” the play begins on a hot summer night in “downtown Midtown, USA” at the WHUU studios right before a weekly variety show starts. The torch singer, played by Capital TheatreWorks’ co-founder Tanya Burnham, hasn’t returned to the studio since the rehearsal and Lenny Merkin (Michael J. Mahoney) and Lillian White (Katie Denyes) set up the plot for the off-air drama in which three of the radio staff actresses are all vying for the romantic lead, Skip Montgomery.
The four classic shows are “My Friend Irma,” a comedy by Cy Howard; “The Bickersons,” another comedy by Phillip Rapp; “The Mother in Law,” a creepy Twilight Show flavored piece by Arch Oboler, and “Dick Kent, Private Eye,” a noir detective story by Rich Davis. “My Friend Irma” was from a series that ran on CBS radio from 1947 to 1954 and later spawned two films and a television series. “The Bickersons” was a series that ran from 1946 to 1951 starring Don Ameche and Frances Langford as the constantly feuding John and Blanche Bickerson. “The Mother In Law” was originally titled “Knock on the Door” and was originally a half-hour show broadcast on Dec. 15, 1942. It ran on a radio horror series called “Lights Out.”
Katie Denyes and Angela Dill (who plays Betsy Bardel, Skip’s almost-fiance) are easily the standouts in a cast that shines with talented comic performers. Dill in particular commands the stage with an elegance and sophistication that makes her instantly likeable. Betsy is generous, if jealous, and friendly, if quick-to-anger. She slips easily into each different character in the radio sketches, creating each one wholesale and imbibing them with distinct personalities, different voices, and delightfully diverse ways of moving. She went from the kooky, Amelia Bedelia clone Irma to the very spooky murderer in “The Mother in Law.”
Denyes played the sweet kid ingenue to perfection, easily winning sympathy from the other characters and the audience. She and Dill have wonderful chemistry, making the lack of antagonism between the rivals believable.
Bill Henson as Artie Drake, the show’s manager and host, supplied numerous noises with especially entertaining snores as John Bickerson. He and Marni Darr Holmes made a perfect couple as the Bickersons.
Holmes was suitably creepy as the mother-in-law cum zombie who haunts her evil daughter-in-law and beguiles her simple-minded son. Between the sketches, she was protective mom to Lillian White.
All of the cast worked beautifully together and added dash after dash of 40s flavor. Dan and Lisa Pappas provided cigarette commercials and supporting voices. Burnham was the simmering torch singer, and Mahoney was the sound guy who jumped into several different roles with great ease.
The only weak link among the actors was Shane Hagedorn, the male romantic lead whose flatness keeps the show from making the jump from good to great. He had no connection with anyone else on stage and it was hard to understand why all the women were fighting for him. His reactions rarely matched the actions that were taking place on stage, and the noir detective spoke in a monotonous cadence that failed to spark any excitement or even suggest that there was a reason to keep listening. In a scene between him and Betsy Bardel, he failed to cover when one of them dropped lines causing the scene to unravel. He continually looked away from the audience in embarrassment — right to the place where another character was supposed to be spying unobserved. His lack of charisma and connection also made the show’s ending lack the punch that the script provided for.
Kevin and Tanya Burnham, as co-founders of the theater, also filled most of the tech roles with Kevin directing and designing lights, sets and sound and Tanya creating the perfectly 40s costumes and coordinating all the props. While this double-duty activity oftentimes makes a show suffer, the Burnhams managed to avoid the pitfalls that come from over-extending. The technical aspects of the show were as good as the performances put in by the actors with the exception of a few sound problems with a fussy mike.
Kevin Burnham also very cleverly set the show on “a hot summer night” in 1947. While opening night was quite pleasant temperature-wise, the Grand Ledge barn in Fitzgerald Park can get uncomfortably warm during July lacking in climate control as it is. If the nights get warmer or more humid during the run, it will simply reinforce the show’s ambiance as characters complain about the lack of air conditioning and the hot weather.
In all, the “1940s Radio Variety Show” is a delightful evening of song, comedy, and mystery. It tickles the audience with fully committed performances, and radio sketches that were fully acted out for the sake of an audience who gets to step back in time and see inside a studio that captures all the charm of a bygone era.
‘1940s Radio Variety Show’
Capital TheaterWorks at The Ledges Playhouse, 133 Fitzgerald Park Dr., Grand Ledge. Friday-Sunday through Aug. 8. Free; donations suggested. 517-944-0221. http://www.capitaltheaterworks.org