Voices That Carry

You're familiar, of course, with the old theatrical plot line in which the lead gets sick, the understudy is forced to go on in her place, and, after a hesitant start, the young woman wows the audience and becomes a star overnight. Something like that happened on the evening I saw The 1940s Radio Hour at the Arvada Center. Joan Hess, who plays sultry singer Ann Collier and has Broadway credits to her name, was absent. Janelle Kato, who -- as far as I can tell from a set of program bios thick with phrases like "thrilled to be making my debut" and "love to my family" -- has few or no professional credits, took on the role. And in a cast full of fine voices and seasoned performers, Kato shone.

True to the convention, she seemed a little hesitant on her first big number, "That Old Black Magic," though her throaty intensity still charmed. But as the evening wore on, Kato warmed to the enterprise, and by the time she was breathing her sweetly seductive rendition of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" into the microphone, she had us spellbound. Given that this musical trifle is set in 1942, when Americans countered their daily hardships with a dreamy, Hollywood-inspired optimism, Kato's triumph couldn't have been more apt.

Set in the basement studio of a small radio station in New York City, The 1940s Radio Hour is a sequence of well-known and well-loved songs from an era when America was fighting a just war and patriotism was innocent. The songs are glued together by jokes, fragments of plot, and commercials for things like soap and refrigerators that are funny because the lines are so hoary (when a phrase is only a decade or so out of date, its use is seen as ridiculous or mildly embarrassing, but after a few decades have passed, the same phrase evokes amused nostalgia). The actors take full advantage of these moments. Shannan Steele's near-orgasm over an Eskimo Pie is particularly funny, as is Duane Black's rendition of a laxative commercial.

In an apparent effort to create depth and texture, writer Walton Jones has added some bantering and bickering; Bev Newcomb-Madden, the director, augments this by giving her actors several bits of business. Old Pops (Bill Berry), the caretaker, shambles about and periodically mutters betting information into the phone. There's an ongoing argument about who will get to sing an absent tenor's ballad. Sexy Ginger (Steele) chews gum incessantly and entices soundman Lou (Joseph Bearss) off stage for quickie assignations whenever she can. Allison Couture's Connie canoodles cutely with B.J. (Eric Sciotto) and has a thing for Pepsi that keeps her jittering through act two. And then there's a would-be matinee idol with an alcohol problem and dreams of movie stardom, played by David Schmittou. But the talky sections are the least interesting parts of the play, and the cutesy cuddling of the couples sometimes distracts from a key song.

It's okay though, because most of the singing is so nice, the songs themselves are so pleasant, and there's great accompaniment by an accomplished group of musicians, heavy on the brass. Duane Black has a wavery, elastic body and a dourly humorous countenance vaguely reminiscent of Detective Munch's in Law & Order. Rick Hilsabeck keeps everything running with exasperated skill. There are several fine voices: Steele is a strong, poised performer; Schmittou's rendition of "Our Love Is Here to Stay" is seductive; Eric Sciotto is a charmer with a rich tone. Couture, with her saddle shoes, '30s-style vocalizing and bounding energy, is funny and appealing for a while, but a little of this characterization goes a long way.

This being the Christmas season, I got to witness another small miracle. As Mary Louise Lee began to sing "I've Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)," her microphone failed. Lee's voice is a wonder under any circumstances, and, unfazed, she kept on singing. The first notes were very soft, and the audience seemed to hold its collective breath as it listened to this unmiked voice, fragile and strong, effortlessly rising and falling, while at the piano, pianist-conductor Martha Yordy gentled her accompaniment so that it supported rather than overwhelmed Lee's sound.

Some people say theater is dead, killed by the flood of louder, shinier, flashier entertainment available to us, but it took only this small on-stage mishap to remind me that theater is irreplaceable precisely because at its core is the human presence, neither less nor more.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

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