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THEATER REVIEW / 'ROCK RADIO KIDZ' : A Station in Life : Production at Theatre-by-the-Sea features decent music and genuine insider details.


You might think that the classic television series "WKRP in Cincinnati" has the franchise on comedies about rock radio, and you'd almost be right: At least in its original run, the show was as knowledgeable a look at the inside of a radio station as has existed in fiction.

But "WKRP" isn't the only word. Santa Barbara disc jockey Jeff Hanley and a crew of actors are bringing another station to life four nights a week at Theatre-by-the-Sea in Ventura.

"Rock Radio KIDZ" was written and directed by Hanley, built around songs written by Arthur O'Donnell and a Bay Area-based rock band, The Nonce, who recorded most of them on an independently released album a few years back. One other song, maybe the show's best, was written by David Lord.

Hanley stars as a deejay--or "air personality," as they now prefer to be called--who left his major market position several years before the play starts, only to reappear as program director of a station in a small, unnamed California coastal town. The play takes place during a few weeks in 1985; Hanley's character, LT, has used some of his former juice to inveigle a local concert by Eric Clapton, to be broadcast nationally via satellite.

For some reason, landing an appropriate opening act is a big deal, and LT is trying to line up a name performer. In the meantime, two locals go after the gig. (Normally, an opening act wouldn't be broadcast, and the headliner would either supply one of his own or use somebody lame enough to make him look really good by comparison. So it was, so it is, and so it will always be.)

Members of the station's staff include morning deejay Chrissie (Meg Pasquini), engineer Jimmy (Jason McComb), receptionist Inez (Lidia Martinez), and sales manager Woody (Brett Quaglino), son of the station owner. Woody, like WKRP's Herb Tarlek, is so inept that he loses a tanning-salon advertiser to an R & B station.

Jimmy leads a band that he'd like to see open for Clapton. But another face appears: that of Holdon Hardon (Vincent Dirt), a British singer-songwriter who himself disappeared some years back only to re-emerge in the same unnamed California coastal town. Interviewing him for her program, Chrissie develops a crush on the Brit, and she lobbies strongly for him to open the Clapton show. In the meantime, LT is trying to book a blues guitar player from Oregon named Robert Cray.

Complications ensue, not the least of them arising from the presence of "Malibu Guru" Dr. Darwin Triscott (Jerry Bearjones), newly hired to host a Sunday morning talk show.

The play is rife with knowledgeable detail, from an authentic-looking studio (designed, evidently, by co-director Jeff LaRive) to Chrissie's bounding into the station to begin her shift bare seconds before she'd supposed to go on air.

The details that don't ring true--that whole opening act routine, the fact that the highly formatted station is playing off vinyl and not tape cartridges, references to parental warning stickers a year or so too early and Quaglino's Mudhoney cap--are virtually negligible.

The songs are at least serviceable, though one clearly intended as the Big Number--"Roadie for the Kinks"--declares aspirations that would have been out of date by 1985.

Two cast members are real rock musicians: Dirt and Quaglino work with the band Skin. And, of course, Hanley's extensive radio work--now on KTYD-FM in Santa Barbara--is invaluable. The acting and singing vary from acceptable to quite good; best of all is Vincent Dirt as smarmy rocker Hardon.

The songs are largely parodies of various rock styles, most of them sung live over prerecorded backing tracks; the most effective may be the Beach Boys-styled "Malibu Guru," sung by McComb, Hanley and Quaglino. And the strongest musical performance of the show is Dirt's climactic "24 Hours a Day," written by David Lord.

Notable, too, are numerous voice-overs and radio commercial parodies ("Drug City--a surprise in every prescription!") performed by members of the cast plus Joe Benson, Nick Morrison, Brice Kendall, Tom Mongelli and Duncan Wright.

"Rock Radio KIDZ" is not a presentation of Theatre-by-the-Sea. It is produced by Hanley and theatre jones, Jeff LaRive's 5-year-old outfit out of Santa Barbara. They may be closer in spirit to rock 'n' rollers than to theater people: Saturday night's three-hour show began 15 minutes late, and members of the audience continued to file in half an hour later.


"Rock Radio KIDZ" is playing indefinitely at Theatre-by-the-Sea, 1559 Spinnaker Drive in Ventura Harbor Village. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and Sundays at 7 p.m. Admission is $12.50 Fridays and Saturdays; $10.50 Sundays; tickets may be purchased at the box office half an hour before show time or charged through THEATIX (213) 466-1767. For further information, call the theater at 645-5624.

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