A warm day in the deep South, earlier this century. A robust matron, and her companions, gather in the parlor to calm a delicate young woman. Enter A Man, and their passions rise to the surface.
Tennessee Williams? No, Radio Gals, a down-home Arkansas slice of country-music theatre set to open Oct. 1 at New York's John Houseman Theatre.
The matron, Hazel C. Hunt (Carole Cook) happens to run WGAL, a radio station serving Cedar Ridge, Arkansas in the 1920s. Hunt's idea of programming includes local gossip, plugs for her home-brewed, all purpose Horehound Compound, and healthy doses of The Hazelnuts, an all female troupe of singing musicians.
The man is O.B. Abbott (Matthew Bennett), an inspector from the department of commerce (and a closet tenor), sent to shut them down for wavejumping, ie. unofficially altering their transmission frequency. Naturally, during the course of the show, he abandons his profession, takes up with the frail young woman (Rosemary Loar), and his crooning is broadcast coast-to-coast. That said, be assured the plot is merely the backdrop for a collection of tunes by Mike Carver and Mark Hardwick, the team responsible for Oil City Symphony. The eclectic combinations of instruments--piano, ukelele, tuba, dishpan & spoons, the theremin--are all played on stage by The Hazelnuts.
Radio Gals comes on the heels of another Off-Broadway show which also includes country music played on-stage by a predominantly female cast. Comparisons to Cowgirls, currently in a successful run at the Minetta Lane Theatre, may be inevitable.
Cowgirls, of course, concerns itself with the musical union of classical and country. But its creators wisely favor frivolity over didacticism. Both casts play a variety of musical instruments. Both scores attempt to charm without cloying.
Of course, there is a traditional audience for shows created in this spirit. They hark back to the "tired businessmen's musicals" which depended on pacing, an up-tempo score and an enthusiastic cast. Radio Gals includes a song about "Kittens in the Snow" with a chorus of "meows," and an Egyptian homage called "Queenie Take Me Home." The ode to "A Fireside, a Pipe and a Pet" is sure to leave any suburbanite unchallenged, yet a little bit happier about his circumstances.
It is to their credit that the composers did not try to invest any intellectual or emotional substance in songs driven by the fiddle or accordion. The astute audience member may notice that the finale "Wedding of the Flowers" number gets the romantic leads to kiss without requiring any actual commitment. It's just old Hazel C. Hunt officiating, like the captain of her own musically-blithe ship.
Reflecting a contemporary sense of gender ambiguity, the roles of Miss Mabel Swindle and Miss Azilee Swindle are played, Mrs. Doubtfire style, by actors M. Rice and P. M. Craver. They infuse the novelty song "Buster, He's a Hot Dog Now," with an air of knowing hokum.
Rennabelle (Klea Blackhurst) delivers another highlight. In her big number "Dear Mr. Gershwin," she belts her claim to fame, having served lunch to Mr. G when he came to visit a nearby city. Like Radio Gals at its best, Rennabelle achieves the right combination of cute and snide.
This certainly isn't as easy as they make it look. Radio Gals, like its conceptual sister Cowgirls, offers innocent entertainment, without pandering to children or insulting the audiences' intelligence. Those who find fault for this reason are missing the point and, probably, much of the fun.
-- By Kevin Reardon