After you've finished your dinner and listened to the usual pre-show stuff about sponsors and visiting groups, out of the corner of your eye you see an old man shlumping around the stage, checking furniture, fiddling with props. Minutes go by without much more happening, and the audience continues to chatter. Then two men stroll across the stage and one settles at the piano. People around you start falling silent, and eventually you realize that The 1940's Radio Hour has begun without ever quite beginning.
At first you think this meandering opening is a setup, and that the show, set in 1942 in a shabby New York radio station, will soon swing into polished, well-rehearsed action. But as other characters mosey on and the singing starts, this sweetly nostalgic musical revue continues to feel low-key and improvisational. In most songfests, whenever one cast member takes the microphone, the others tend to watch raptly, but here they simply pass the time as people at rehearsals usually do, looking at the performer once in a while but most of the time flirting with each other, flipping idly through magazines, whispering a little or — in one case — blowing on freshly painted fingernails.
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There's not much dialogue to this production, just the songs — ballads, novelties, sassy little numbers, Christmas favorites — interspersed with comic bits and inadvertently comic commercials. Low-tech sound effects accompany the action: shoes clumping up and down stairs, bells ringing, a couple of coconut shells struck together to simulate the sound of horses' hooves. There are pieces of story. You can see that lovely lead singer Ann has something going with drunken, Dean Martin-style crooner Johnny Cantone, who's been at the station six years and talks constantly about making his fortune in Hollywood but will never get any further than this. BJ Gibson, an obviously up-and-coming youngster, is fascinated by perky little Connie, and she reciprocates. Biff is off to war after the show, and everyone's wondering if he'll come back. But these aren't story lines you follow, just evocative moments that bob to the surface and then sink under again.
But in 1942, the big story was the war. America was united behind what was almost universally considered a just war, and radio was the country's voice. Soldiers stationed overseas listened to programs like these, packed with corny, homey routines and songs about having yourself a merry little Christmas. Folks at home sent their thoughts out to these young men over the airwaves.
The 1940's Radio Hour
Presented by Boulder's Dinner Theatre through January 26, 5501 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder, 303-449-6000, www.theatreinboulder.com.
The 1940's Radio Hour is an excellent showcase for the talents of not just the Boulder's Dinner Theatre performers, but its musicians, as well. Neal Dunfee's fine orchestra, usually hidden from the audience, is right on stage, and the players become part of the action. Pursing her improbably heart-shaped lips and chugging soda at every opportunity, Joanie Brosseau-Beyette is full of infectious excitement. Scott Beyette unleashes his inner comic in a couple of very funny routines, complete with mangled words and dropped pants. Wayne Kennedy gives another appealing, low-key performance as caretaker Pops; you can almost smell the dusty apple core that must be hiding somewhere under his desk. But his character also has a gleeful stubbornness, and one of the show's best numbers occurs when Pops is alone on the stage and decides to experiment with the microphone, singing a few tentative bars of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." The musicians, returning to their posts, notice, and begin providing accompaniment. Pops gets cockier and happier and starts experimenting, the orchestra plays along, and the song erupts into a balls-out celebration. Alicia Dunfee is in her element as Ginger, the slow-thinking, gum-chewing, would-be sexpot. Her orgasmic Eskimo Pie commercial is killer, but she's also killer when she throws off her sleepy restraint to vamp her way through "Blues in the Night." Brian Norber is a convincingly world-weary crooner, and Shelly Cox-Robie is smooth and sweet as Ann. Matt LaFontaine's cheeky grin works particularly well during Dunfee's blues number, when it contrasts hilariously with the practiced suavity of the rest of the male chorus. But I'd like to see him tone it down a bit elsewhere.
Unfortunately, on the night I attended — particularly at the beginning of the evening — the sound was so loud that it hurt my ears; on several numbers, the backup singers almost drowned out the lead vocalist. Other than that, though, what's not to like about an evening filled with songs like "Black Magic," "How About You," "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and "I'll Be Seeing You"? If you're dreading the sentimentality, forced humor and relentless cheeriness of the usual Christmas offerings, this melodic, charming piece could be just the gift you need.