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Silhouette Stages turns Slayton House into a 1940's radio show

By Mike Giuliano

6:20 AM EDT, October 30, 2013

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If you want to tune into what America was like on the home front during World War II, "The 1940's Radio Hour" is a nostalgic musical revue that's bursting with songs from that era.

This Silhouette Stages production transforms the stage at the Slayton House Theater into a simulated live radio broadcast, and you get to be the studio audience for the show. When this studio's "Applause" sign is lit, that means you better put your hands together.

Although this production definitely merits your applause, it gets off to a sluggish start that may have you impatiently sitting on your hands. The show begins with members of the large cast individually entering the radio station, engaging in brief conversations, and pantomiming their radio program-related chores.

It's a nice way to introduce us to the characters and also to the preparatory work that goes into putting on a live radio show, but there's a sleepy tone here. Co-directors Lisa Ellis and Alex Porter need to establish a snappier pace and even allow for some of the screwball comic energy that characterized American showbiz in the late 1930s's and early 1940's. After all, "The 1940's Radio Hour" is meant to evoke a radio broadcast going out from a New York City radio station in 1942.

Another problem that's immediately apparent is that there's a very snug fit on a Slayton House Theater stage that's trying to accomodate the radio studio, offices, and a bandstand. This isn't an issue when vocalists are lined up at their microphones in front of the six-member band, but traffic management does become an issue when 14 actors start dancing together at very close quarters.

Also marring the reviewed performance were the wildly uneven microphone levels. While some actors could be heard throughout the theater, the voices of others barely carried to the first few rows. The misbehaving sound system was painfully ironic considering this is a theater show about a radio show.

The good news is that the production improved a lot once the slo-motion exposition was behind it and the radio show finally went on the air with musical numbers, period-appropriate commercials for products including a laxative, and fast-paced on-air banter.

The too-tight staging remained a bit of a concern, but the actors managed to navigate through all those people and props. Even the unreliable microphones at the reviewed performance generally behaved themselves and did their job as the evening proceeded.

What ultimately made the show so enjoyable were the enthusiastic actors and a first-rate band under musical director Chris Bagley conducting from his piano bench. So, don't touch that dial. Stay tuned to this 1940's radio broadcast and be prepared to find your own toes tapping.

As soon as the slick announcer named Clifton A. Feddington (Patrick Mason) commences the "live" broadcast and the singing begins, almost everything is fine in this Silhouette Stages production. The opening musical number, for instance, is a zesty version of "Kalamazoo" that's done by the full ensemble.

The smoothly harmonizing voices in "Kalamazoo" are a sign that this is a cohesive vocal company. Indeed, the show's highlights include a campy version of "Chiquita Banana" in which five female vocalists sing together — and while wearing ridiculous Carmen Miranda-inspired hats that could pass for fruit baskets!

Voices also blend well in a lively rendition of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" by two of the radio show's lead female vocalists, Ginger Brooks (Mary Guay Kramer) and Connie Miller (Emily Biondi), who are joined by the teenaged studio assistant, Wally Fergusson (Jesse Kinstler). Through their costumes, hair styles and perky singing, Kramer and Biondi really get into the '40s swing of things; and Biondi is especially good in a solo number titled "Daddy."

As for Kinstler, he proves to be an enjoyable little scene stealer in this production. This actor's wholesome appearance and non-stop energy make him seem like the reincarnation of the 1930's and '40s juvenile movie actors who cheerfully played hotel bellboys and soda fountain employees.

Another featured performer is Johnny Cantone (James Gross), a smooth crooner who is known to drink — and more than a little — on the side. Although Gross could use some more vocal heft in "Love Is Here to Stay," he's better when assisted by the chorus in "I'll Never Smile Again"; the latter number also is elevated by a beautiful trombone solo by Jay Ellis.

The biggest star of the radio show is a mink coat-clad, swaggeringly self-confident diva named Geneva Lee Browne (Samantha McEwen). It's a wonderful boost to the show that McEwen has the most technically polished voice in the cast. When McEwen sings "I Got It Bad," you know that you've got it good.

"The 1940's Radio Hour" has its remaining performances Friday and Saturday, Nov. 1 and 2, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 3 at 3 p.m. at Slayton House Theater, at 10400 Cross Fox Lane in Wilde Lake Village Center in Columbia. Tickets are $20. Go to silhouettestages@gmail.com. For Slayton House info, call 410-730-3987 or go to http://www.wildelake.org.