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Review: `Radio Gals’ in Hopewell

This review by Joan Crespi was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 24, 1999. All rights reserved.

It’s part spoof of its folksy radio genre, part satire

on old-time melodrama, part revue, and all entertainment. It’s "Radio

Gals," playing at Hopewell’s Off-Broadstreet Theater through April

17. "Radio Gals" is set in the late 1920s when radio was still

new (the first regular broadcast was in 1920) and small stations proliferated;

a time when competitors frequently jammed each other’s signals, grabbing

broadcasting frequencies in an unregulated free-for-all.

In this chaos music teacher Hazel Hunt, so the show’s story goes,

received a 100-watt radio transmitter upon retirement, and she and

five dippy women singer-musicians, aptly named the "Hazelnuts,"

began broadcasting daily as station WGAL from Hunt’s parlor in Cedar

Ridge, Arkansas. And there the genteel wackiness begins.

But the story is not what fires this show: it’s more a vehicle to

hang the widely varied songs and radio chatter on. The songs are clever,

light, silly, irrelevant, well-performed, and about anything at all

— Mr. Gershwin, Boxwoods, Stars, Love, "Buster is a Hot Dog

Now," "There are Fairies In my Mother’s Flower Garden,"

"Whispering Pines," or Cleopatra. And a potpourri of things

— the opening of Milton’s "Paradise Lost" and Longfellow’s

oft-parodied "Hiawatha" — are read into the mike. Anything

goes. And Hazel hawks her horehound moonshine (the bran of the day)

on the air with, "Once you have tried it, you will be moved."

The book, music, and lyrics are by Mike Craver and Mark Hardwick,

from a story based on an incident from evangelist Aimee Semple MacPherson’s

life. She was charged with wave-jumping — wandering from channel

to channel to find clear airspace — and then was rumored to have

eloped with the government inspector sent to investigate.

"Radio Gals" is fun from the moment the flibberty-gibbet,

hand-waving Hazel, perfectly played by Lois Carr, bustles onto the

stage. Shortly afterward, a gaggle of squealing women bursts in: Rennebell,

Azilee, America, and Mabel, with Gladys to come later, and immediately

the "gals" hurry over to their waiting musical instruments.

Christy McCall plays the tall, daffy, and silly Rennebell beautifully,

and she plays the drums, flute, sax and clarinet with equal skill.

Never outdone, Kathy Ridl plays the anarchist suffragette Azilee (funniest

when she hides her face behind a feather duster); she also adeptly

plays the bass and violin; Reba Holley is delightful as America (she

plays both French horn and violin flawlessly), and Lisa Zolnowski,

who plays the piano with versatility throughout, is excellent as the

seemingly quieter Mabel, until she struts flamboyantly with a red

feather boa.

Gretchen Felix is fine as the romantic lead, Gladys, and equally good

on piano and clarinet. And the show’s only man, John Kemp, is as ideal

as O.B. Abbott, the government inspector, whose appearance late in

Act I injects some needed conflict into the show. (Government inspector?

In 1927 the radio industry asked the federal government to intervene

and assign frequencies.) To Abbott, Hazel and the gals are airwave

pirates: their moved signal reaching far, as their mail attests.

The actors’ comic timing is flawless, thanks to Robert Thick, who

designed the production and directs it to move seamlessly. Thick has

the characters playing their roles with comical overacting. Julie

Thick, as choreographer, creates funny and inventive numbers, particularly

the Egyptian one. (And though she’s not listed on the program, Julie

comes on for a cameo tap dance.) Thick and Thick create the animated

precision of a professional chorus. The precise musical direction

is from Ed McCall.

But where does Julie Thick find people who can act and sing and play

musical instruments? All non-Equity, they’re New Jerseyans or from

eastern Pennsylvania. She tells us she "held the show for a year

to find the right people." And where does she find these relatively

unknown plays? The show, new to New Jersey, premiered at the Arkansas

Repertory Theater in Little Rock in 1993, opened at the John Houseman

Theater in New York on October, 1996, and closed in November, 1996.

"I look for plays that have been successful out of town but not

in New York," she says. "They might do better in a smaller

theater."

And applause to costumer Ann Raymond for finding the shapeless, frumpy,

gawdawful dresses that underscore the women’s ridiculous behavior.

Passionate, profound, or moving this show is not: it has no message.

But the multi-talented, self-accompanying singer-actors are energetic

and vibrant, and the show is polished and enjoyable. "Radio Gals"

is strictly a laughing matter.

— Joan Crespi

Radio Gals, Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood

Avenue, Hopewell, 609-466-2766. Plays weekends to April 17. Dessert

& show, $18.50 and $20.


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