HOUSTON - You'd think that Radio Days, a concept production recreating the golden era of radio theater, would have a director. But it doesn't. Who's in charge? Five By Design, the Minneapolis-based vocal quintet who conceived and perform the airwaves of the 1940s. Backed by a given symphony, the three men and two women, all in their early 30's and therefore technically too young to know what "Mairzey Doats" are, nevertheless take a "Sentimental Journey" and with the help of stage lighting imagine a "Moonlight Serenade." They also call for "Superman," discover "The Shadow," and solve an "Inner Sanctum Mystery." They play old quiz shows, reenact kid shows, ham up soap operas, and sing the praises of nostalgic jingles and patriotic pitches.
Accompanied by the Houston Symphony-Exxon Pops May 8 - 10, Five By Design revisits period standards including "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo." Invoking World War II, the troupe announces "Mail Call," endorses rationing and scrap iron drives, and interprets Irving Berlin's "Any Bonds Today?" and Frank Loesser's "Praise the Lord & Pass the Ammunition." Carmen Miranda and Betty Grable show up, and a little gender bending brings back the Andrews Sisters.
But nobody directs things per se. Rather, the inverse occurs. "Everybody has input," explained Alton Accola, tour manager of Five By Design and onstage host/narrator of Radio Days. "Everyone pays attention to the big picture." Audience reaction tells the troupe what's working, and so do the audiences themselves in a reception line following the show. "We also learn a lot by videotaping our performances," Accola continued. "This helps us with creating the atmosphere and sustaining the tenor as well as fine-tuning the singing and 'acting.'"
Five By Design was founded in 1982 as a student vocal group at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. Originally called Hot Jazz, the singers didn't want to limit their musical repertoire and branched out accordingly. Most of the current members were in place by 1988. Five By Design has been broadcasting Radio Days for ten years or so, though it's a perpetual work-in-progress as the troupe continues to mine the era and examine how their talents can best honor it.
"We've taken pains to put on an authentic recreation," Accola stated. "We went back and researched which radio shows played well. We watched old movies. We poured over archives, tapes, books." Accola continued, "By doing this show over a period of years, we've had the convenience of time to discover what works and what doesn't. Growing up in the Midwest, we've had had the luxury of process-into-product. It doesn't cost much to develop here." The ambiance to Radio Days is affectionate. Audiences are largely middle-aged and up. Then again, what with "Jukebox Saturday Night," the kids seem to like it too, Accola said.
Radio Days plays with the Houston Symphony-Exxon Pops at Jones Hall May 8 - 10. For tickets, $19 - $50, call (713) 227-ARTS in Houston or (800) 828-ARTS out of town.
By Peter Szatmary