Christmas is a little early this year along Broadway. Last night, a lively, tuneful, goofy and colorful toy called "The 1940's Radio Hour" was opened for us at the St. James. I wish I could have taken it home.
It's disarmingly simple in construction - you could probably put it together yourself - and even innocent in the way it plays fast and loose with the rigidly organized world of network radio during the early '40s. But once the members of the "Mutual Manhattan Variety Cavalcade" have all come in from the snowy night outside the Hotel Astor's "Algonquin Room" and gotten themselves together for the weekly broadcast on Dec. 21, 1942, we're in for an almost totally exhilarating hour of singing, dancing and funny commercials about Sal Hepatica, Nash cars and other indispensable products of the time, along with warnings about gingivitis.
A brief interlude offering "PART ONE" of "A Christmas Carol," with a sound-effects man doing most of the work, slows things up a bit, but the rest is pure fun and sentiment.
Though the cast is uniformly bright and engaging - I'll get to that shortly - it is the note-perfect big band on stage that gives the evening its special drive. Conducted by Stanley Lebowsky, it might well be considered the star of the show as its massed trumpets, trombones, reeds and rhythm section lay down imitations of the Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and other sounds with immense savvy.
The effect is doubly electrifying when a Dee Dee Bridgewater sashays her way to the microphone to swing "Rose of the Rio Grande," or when the gang, including the blonde and bouncy Crissy Wilzak (she's forever straightening her stocking seams) and a limber beanpole named Stephen James mesh cleanly with the driving instrumentation in "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy."
In between, an insouciant Jeff Keller, cigaret in one hand and a highball in the other (he's off to Hollywood after this) - leads a Pied-Pipers-like trio in the Dorsey arrangement of "I'll Never Smile Again." Mary Cleere Haran gives "That Old Black Magic" its due, tap-dancing Kathy Andrini squeaks out "Daddy," Wilzak delivers a terrific "Blues in the Night," and Bridgewater caps her performance with a lovely "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)."
Solid senders all, and presided over by a fervish show host and producer portrayed by Josef Sommer, who's hoping the sponsors will pick up the show for a seventh year. Surely they will, even if 2d Lt. John Doolittle, on leave from P-38 training, must turn in his trumpet and desert his sound-effects post after the show.
Lights out when they've all said their goodnights and disappeared through the snowy doorway, leaving stage doorman Arny Freeman, who also fills in as Scrooge and takes horse bets over two phones, all by himself to do a little jig as he walks off to his radio's faint sound of the Claude Thornhill theme "Snowfall" coming from Frank Dailey's Meadowbrook entertainment center. Corny but nice.
Walton Jones, who conceived the show and concocted the unimportant dialogue, has staged it spiritedly, and Thommie Walsh has handled the musical staging with matching skill. David Gropman's set, with the control room high in back, is eminently suitable, and William Ivey Long's costumes are amusing comments on '40s wear. Tharon Musser has lighted the show superbly.
Yes, they swing out to the Miller treatment of "Jingle Bells" in keeping with the little decorated tree in the corner, and the radio "HOUR" ends with all hands joined in "Strike Up the Band" and announcer Sommer's final words, "Bye now. Buy bonds."
I don't know if it actually snowed on Dec. 21, 1942, and I don't seem to recall the Nash being much in evidence then. But who cares? Younger - much younger - members of the preview audience I sat with seemed caught up in the spirit of the thing. And, as for me, all I know is that if the "Mutual Manhattan Variety Cavalcade" was renewed and still on the air, I'd tune in every week.
The 1940s Radio Hour, which opened at the St. James Theater last night, is not so much a musical as a device. And a fairly slender device at that.
You enter the theater to find a reconstruction of a somewhat seedy looking 1940s Broadcast Studio. You arrive at the requested time and find a loveable old nightwatchman reading a loveable old newspaper. It is apparently snowing outside. Twenty minutes later - during which time the audience has more or less assembled - something of more or less interest starts.
It becomes apparent that we are being treated to a recreation of a live broadcast of WOV with their Mutual Manhattan Variety Cavalcade from the Hotel Astor's Algonquin Room. But more - much more - for the author/director Walton Jones, intends us to glimpse the fun, humor and heartbreak, the cliché of these real people who entertain their radio audience.
It is the night of Dec. 21, 1942, and the world is at war. Radio and to a lesser extent, movies were the cement that bound the morale of the allied fighting forces and the various home fronts.
Jones - a 1975 graduate of the Yale Drama School - was presumably not born in 1942, but by studying the films and the music of the period has caught the atmosphere extraordinarily well.
Even the attempts at paper thin narrative, such as the harrassed producer trying to stop his lead singer from getting drunk, the delivery boy wanting a chance in front of a mike, the second banana who dreams of singing a ballad, and the trumpet-playing sound effects man who chooses a fighter plane over Glenn Miller, all have their own correct brand of pastiche corn.
And the songs. Ah, the songs! An old man coming out of the theater last night turned to his wife and said with an appreciative wheeze: "Do you know, I knew every one of those songs." Well, yes.
Here is a batch of golden oldies from the old golden days of radio. The kind of selection they nowadays sell as cheap record albums on television - "send now to some unlikely box-number in Grand Central Station" - but here not sung by the original singers. Most of the songs are played, quite gently, for nostalgic laughs. The music, from Chattanooga Choo Choo to Strike up the Band! proves splendidly memorable, but nowadays even nostalgia isn't what is used to be.
The show itself, let alone the music, has had quite a history. It started out as a one-man radio drama in 1972, got music two years later in New Haven, went to the Yale Repertory Theater in 1978 and later in the same year, in its present form, found itself at the White House. It could easily have started a "Draft Roosevelt" movement.
The performances are most engaging. The cast is highly talented and although I think very little conceptually of Jones' apology for a musical, he has directed it with a glowing mixture of cynicism and affection.
It is difficult, even uncharitable, to single out performances, but Josef Sommer, for one, is both befuddled and suave as the producer/announcer whose whipped cur manner turns delightfully unctuous when faced with a microphone. To Sommer also falls the best of Jones conceits - the introduction of authentic 1940s advertising plugs, which are now often hilarious.
John Doolittle, the Air Force trumpeter, has the second best idea when he handles, with consummate adroitness, the sound effects for a production of A Christmas Carol. He is splendid here, also in a warmly sentimental Christmas message that shrieked with the time, and finally he's not a bad trumpet player.
The best actualy singing comes from Dee Dee Bridgewater, a lady who could make it at any time as a thrush in any cage. The others are more singing actors than professional singers, and as a consequence they naturally imitate rather than innovate.
Jeff Keller, his tuxedo slightly awry, his slouch hat fixed on the back of his head, chain smoking and chain drinking is fine as a teenage heartthrob losing his youth, Mary Cleere Haran oozes sincerity as a Forces' sweetheart, Joe Grifasi charms as a failure on the make, and Stephen James and two properly strident ingenues, Crissy Wilzak and Kathy Andrini, sing with style and throw themselves through Thommie Walsh's cleverly observed period choreography.
The show looks authentic, David Gropman sets and William Ivey Long costumes, and sounds just like our radios would have sounded if they had heard of Hi-fidelity 40 years ago.
My objection to the evening is simple. The music is old, although camped up, and the show itself is one basic joke extended all night. It could have been more fun in a cabaret - and the tickets might have been cheaper.
"Ah, where does it hurt you?" murmurs a crooner called Johnny as he listens to a superior trombonist interpolate a spectacular riff into the number he's been doing, which just happens to be "I'll Never Smile Again." The song just happens to be "I'll Never Smile Again" because the new evening at the St. James, "The 1940's Radio Hour," is, I'm sure to no one's surprise, a 1940's radio show, complete with the tunes and the intimate verbal doodles associated with the big bands, the big Bings, the big Frankies and the big everybody else of the period.
And "where does it hurt you?" means, of course, that it doesn't hurt at all, not at all. The music, even when a trombone or a muted trumpet seems to be spitting figure eights into space, is already soothing, as though the notes of the scale had been tossed into a blender and whipped to a creamy consistency that could be used to fill pies. Pop music of the 40's was both vigorous and kindly, swinging and swaying to the steady gurgle of the satiny syrup being poured. And the sound of a golden alto sax was heard throughout the land.
So, no, it doesn't itch, scratch or otherwise irritate, not while a personally manic but professionally precise conductor named Stanley Lebowsky is all but hurling himself at the 15 musicians gathered on stage, everyone of them with long and accurate memories of how it was. The jogtrot syncopation of "Strike Up the Band" is made startling once again, a to-be-treasured saxophone player named Jane Ira Bloom makes her improvisations on "Ain't She Sweet" practically visible against the glass control booth, and "You, You're Driving Me Crazy" comes out drowned in the very best butter.
Of course the songs have to be sung, too, and for the most part they're sung with the zest, sympathy and downright coziness that has kept them coining money for ASCAP for so long. When Jeff Keller is putting his mind and larynz to Johnny's "I'll Never Smile Again," he first takes a deep, insinuating drag on a cigarette, then proceeds to inhale the song, too. When Dee Dee Bridgewater, in one of those heavily sequined black gowns that turns brazenly magenta under the right lights, chooses to be nice to "Rose of the Rio Grande," Rose could not ask for sweeter treatment. When a lanky, bow-tied Stephen James teams up with the childlike and sprightly Kathy Andrini for "How's About You" (Miss Andrini having already done "Hey, Daddy" in pig-Latin), the footwork is as giddily cheerful as the vocalizing. Indeed, just about everything that is done dead straight at the microphone during the show-within-a-show is winning - and winning in a legitimate way.
I must now say what does hurt. Walton Jones, author and director, hasn't been content with reassembling for us a mere hourlong meander down memory lane, following solos with close harmony and close harmony with explosions on the ever-ready snare drum. He's also wanted to give us a taste of behind-the-scenes studio life at station WOV - remarkably seedy in its appointments, it seems to me, for an Astor Hotel outlet in the 40's - and to let us get to know the performers not just as performers, but also as people. Unhappily, the people are as synthetic as the musical arrangements are true.
The evening is framed as a sort of "Changing Room" of broadcasting, with only stage doorman Pops (Arny Freeman) on hand at the opening, lonely in gloomy quarters lighted by little more than a Christmas tree. Come closing-time, Pops is alone again, turning off the lights once more. Between dark and dark, the door opens to let the principals hurry in out of the snow (very good snow, I'm bound to say), one of whom takes a direct hit from a snowball thrown not by a kid but by a cop (situation unexplained).
As the show's regulars, together with one stray, make their appearances, they are swiftly identified by and as show-business clichés: the hard-drinking male singer who pays girls to squeal for him, the peppy chorine who chews gum and speaks through her nose, the tall soloist in blue who is eternally late, and the handsome black blues singer who adopts an open-armed "I'm here!" stance to indicate she's all the show needs to get started.
The stray (Jack Hallett) is a delivery boy from the Hotel Piccadilly's drug-store, wrapped in earmuffs, galoshes, apron and ambition. If someone should fail to show up, he knows the routines and is ready to go on. What's your guess about his getting to go on? And what's your guess about his getting called away, right in the middle of "Chattanooga Choo Choo," to make an urgent delivery for the Piccadilly?
These hand-me-down people, and the highly guessable things they are going to do, are right out of the earliest movie musicals perpetrated by Warner Bros. and friends, and when I say "earliest" I mean before the emergence of Busby Berkeley and high art. Sample exchange: "Geneva, can you loan me 20 bucks?" "I could. I won't, but I sure could!" Or work on this one: "You need a diction teacher." "No!" "You want to sound like Gabriel Heatter or Walter Winchell?" "No!" "Then you need a diction teacher." The Duncan Sisters used to do better than that.
Having established that life goes on backstage, no matter what, the author is naturally going to invent crises while the show is on air. A sound engineer madly races through his controls, having forgotten to adjust them in order to pick up a tap dance. The show's director (that fine actor Josef Sommer) must frantically snatch a Coke bottle out of the hands of a girl doing a Pepsi-Cola commercial. (Well, I suppose at least the studio audience would see it.) A drummer goes berserk during a solo, stopping the soloist dead. Johnny, progressively less than sober, strolls to the mike not to sing but to announce he's quitting then and there.
Add to this a long, effortful and surely misplaced version of Dickens's "Christmas Carol," meant to milk the possible comedy that can be got out of manipulated sound effects - carriage wheels, closing doors and squeaking shoes, all too literally accomplished - and you've got a spot of trouble in River City. Except for a sensitively read farewell speech from John Doolittle, what's offered as real-life is routine, paper-thin. Only the music has body.
Call the evening schizoid, then: when it is good, it is really very good, and when it is bad you know what it is. Ask yourself what you'll settle for, and act accordingly.