After Goodspeed, Collaborators Hope the Sun'll Come Out Tomorrow for Radio Girl

News   After Goodspeed, Collaborators Hope the Sun'll Come Out Tomorrow for Radio Girl Goodspeed Musicals, from whence cometh Annie, launched another Depression-era orphan toward Broadway with Radio Girl, which concluded a month-long workshop run Aug. 22 at the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, CT.

Gabriella Malek
Gabriella Malek Photo by Diane Sobolewski

The only reviews the show has received have been from audiences, which, as an encouragingly consistent rule, just sat there with silly, accepting grins on their collective pusses for the duration and then leapt to their feet, applauding madly. On some nights, there were sharp barks of approval from the composer's dog, Freddy. (The Terris is Goodspeed's "developmental" space where new musicals are tested without drama critics hovering — they aren't invited.)

Kelly Gonda, whose East of Doheny production company (Grey Gardens) is lead-producing the piece, takes all of this as a "Yes!" and on Aug. 24 will sit down with the show's creatives — composer Henry Krieger (Dreamgirls, Side Show), lyricist Susan Birkenhead (Jelly's Last Jam, Triumph of Love) and book writer Daniel Goldfarb (Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me) — to determine what the next move will be for Radio Girl

By any other name, Radio Girl is "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm," from the classic children's novel of 1903 by Kate Douglas Wiggin, who also authored "Mother Carey's Chickens." Rebecca has been played three times on screen — by Mary Pickford in 1917, Marian Nixon in 1932 and by Shirley Temple in 1938.

Goldfarb ignores the novel and the first two films, settling with slavish fidelity on the freely adapted Temple edition, which glories in the then-golden days of radio.

Krieger credits Gonda with coming up with the idea of musicalizing the Temple movie, which famously offered a medley of her big hits ("On the Good Ship Lollipop," "Animal Crackers in My Soup," "Oh My Goodness"). His and Birkenhead's response to this is a bouquet of new songs, the kind that reminds one of the "good old-fashioned musical" that has been M.I.A. on Broadway. In the developmental run, their song list varied from show to show, sometimes prompted by suggestions from director-choreographer Christopher Gattelli (a Tony nominee for the choreography of South Pacific), and they wound up with an even dozen.

"A lot of cuts were made because the scenes were running very long at first," Birkenhead said. "We dropped a lot of songs, and I did a lot of rewriting. 'Love Is the Last Thing I Need' was originally written as a solo, but Christopher decided that he wanted to try it as a comic duet. Now, I'm thinking I really want to rewrite it again."

Meredith Patterson and Gabriella Malek
photo by Diane Sobolewski

Fortunately, she may have time to adjust to her heart's content. "It’s got to go regionally," figured Birkenhead, whose head hasn't been turned by the enthusiastic reception the show has received. "Next step will be the regional-theatre step."

There has been a steady parade of potential backers burning up the Connecticut roadways since the show opened July 29. Michael Jenkins of the Dallas Summer Musicals found that the results far exceeded his expectations, and he was not alone.

"Michael Price [Goodspeed Musicals' executive director] is over the moon about the show," said East of Doheny executive Matt Schicker. "It started slow, but, after the first weekend, once the word got out, audiences built, and we began selling out."

Indeed, Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) had to settle for a folding chair off to the side. Radio Girl had the largest cast ever to play the Norma Terris — 22 in all. A half-dozen of those were pre-teen girls who were hired locally to ease the housing shortage and enable the show's creators to stay in town and focus on their jobs.

A pint-sized Gabriella Malek, who turns 15 on Aug. 25, has been singing Rebecca's numbers during the three years the show was being assembled. She fills Temple's tap-shoes but gets a lot of help from Broadway stalwarts.

Meredith Patterson of Broadway's first White Christmas and Anthony Holds of the late Enron played the romantic leads, assumed in 1938 by Gloria Stuart and Randolph Scott. Jack Haley's role of the radio coordinator gave John Bolton (Curtains) his long-overdue shot at outrageous comedy, and he was paired with an equally wild-witted Michele Ragusa (Young Frankenstein). The cartoonish villainy was dispatched by Joey Sorge (The Drowsy Chaperone, Happy Days the Musical) and Liz Larsen (The Most Happy Fella, Little by Little).

The elderly pair fielding the roles filled by Slim Summerville and Helen Westley? Orson Bean, somehow still boyish at 82, and Lee Meriwether, Miss America of 1955, now gracefully gone granny — or, more accurately, cranky auntie: Rebecca's Aunt Miranda has a deep hate for show biz and a determination to keep her niece off the airways. That's the main conflict of Act One.

It doesn’t help that Miranda was left at the altar — by Bean's Homer Busby, the butler next door. "I couldn't find the church," he shrugged. "I thought she was a Methodist."

Bean has kept his foot on the stage on the West Coast, and Meriwether has done Grandma Sylvia's Funeral Off-Broadway and toured with the Kaye Ballard company of Nunsense.

"We never worked together before," Meriwether admitted. "We never even met, in fact. I thought we might have met on one of the game shows, but he didn't think so."

John Bolton (center) with Betty Smith, Haley Murphy, Meg Guzulescu, Marissa Smoker, Morgan Martin and Laura Spineti
John Bolton (center) with Betty Smith, Haley Murphy, Meg Guzulescu, Marissa Smoker, Morgan Martin and Laura Spineti
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