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Air Waves

Play's story unfolds during studio broadcast of '40s radio variety show.

April 05, 2001|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A couple of parodies are on the boards in the next few weeks: "The 1940s Radio Hour" staged by the Conejo Players, and "The Butler Did It, Singing" at Camarillo Community Theatre. The titles alone tell you what you're going to see. Now the question is: Are you going to like them?

Anyone who saw the nostalgic "Remember WENN" on American Movie Classics can expect more of the same from "Radio Hour." The play, developed over numerous productions and with Walton Jones credited as writer, actually preceded the cable series.

Set entirely within a New York City radio studio during Christmas week 1942, the story takes place briefly before and throughout the broadcast of a variety show supposedly performed in front of a live audience. There are elements of what might loosely be termed a plot, but essentially the play is an excuse for a bunch of people to perform authentic songs from the period, throwing in a bit of evocative comedy.

If you recognize the name of newsman Gabriel Heatter, you'll be fully clued in; if not, there's plenty to enjoy as the cast runs through songs including "That Old Black Magic," "Blue Moon," "I'll Never Smile Again" and the like, interrupted by a few authentic-sounding commercials.

The radio production staff includes Lou (Steve Austin), who seems to double as sound effects man and floor manager; Pops (Jack McGee), who gambles and grumbles, as people called "Pops" always seem to do; Wally (Gino Roy), the coffee guy; and technician Stanley (Ken Endness).

The performers, led by host and father figure Clifton A. Feddington (Robert West), include a boy singer reminiscent of Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cantone (Steve Kirwan); diva Geneva (Peggy Walsh); girl singers Ginger (Delaney Gibson), Connie (Katy Wright) and Ann (Terrie Benton); singer-comic Neal Tilden (the especially amusing Tyler Wright); and singer-trumpeter Biff Baker (Jason Rockney), a Tex Beneke type who's about to leave for active duty with the Army.

Bandleader Zoot Doubleman (Charles Padilla) leads the brisk little band, several members of which are allowed solos.

Zachary Spencer, an accomplished musician himself, directed the show, with choreography (on a radio show, no less) by Benton, Julianna Bennet and Allison Bibicoff.

DETAILS

"The 1940s Radio Hour" continues at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through April 28, with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. April 8 and 22 at Conejo Players Theater, 351 S. Moorpark Road, Thousand Oaks. Tickets are $14 Saturdays; $12 on Fridays and Sundays; and $10 Thursdays. Group rates are available. For reservations or further information, call 495-3715.

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Fans of the old Moorpark Melodrama should be especially attracted to "The Butler Did It, Singing." The production involves several familiar names and faces, starting with Tim Kelly, who wrote many of the Melodrama's shows.

Also involved are musical director and pianist Tim King, and actors Chris Carnicelli, Damian Gravino and Kathi Janca Gravino, who also worked at the playhouse that closed a few years ago.

You'll recognize the format too, with King's pre-show music, and Gravino's audience warmup--all that's missing are directions to the smoking section.

The play itself is a very--make that extremely--broad parody of English murder mysteries, wherein all the action takes place in a secluded and inaccessible location. In this case, Miss Maple (Rochelle Wiltfang, who is very good) invites several mystery writers to her island home off San Francisco; each writer is to appear as his or her creation. The premise doesn't hold up well: How could Dashiell Hammett appear as both Nick and Nora Charles, for instance? And Lord Peter Wimsey was created by a woman. But most viewers probably won't recognize the prototypes, anyway.

Among the characters are Maple's assistant, Rita (Julie Jones); the mysterious Miss Haversham (director Kathi Janca Gravino); and writers Father White (David Friel; think G.K. Chesterton's detective priest Father Brown); hard-boiled Chandler Marlowe (Damian Gravino); Chinese stereotype Louie Fan (Carnicelli); Rick (James Ward) and Laura (Betsy McIntyre); Peter Flimsey (William Wilson); and Charity (Natalie Holcomb), a redhead, who's no Edna Buchanan.

This play is--and I can't emphasize this enough--about as subtle as a fire alarm, and it has acting, for the most part, to match. That said, it's good to see the spirit of the melodrama somehow revived.

DETAILS

"The Butler Did It, Singing" continues at 8 Friday and Saturday evenings and 2 Sunday afternoons through April 22 at the Camarillo Community Theatre, 330 S. Skyway Drive at the Camarillo Airport. Tickets are $12 general admission; $10 students and seniors; and $8 children. Group rates are available. For reservations or further information, call 388-5716.

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Todd Everett can be reached at teverett@concentric.net.

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