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Radio play comes in fuzzy

Attempt to recapture past suffers from ’50s sentimentality

By Leigh E. Rich

“It’s Radio Time” is full of promises. It promises music, dancing and good old fashioned fun. It promises to touch the audience with “heart and humor.” And it promises a “two-act ride down radio-lane (where a) zany group of radio misfits (will) transform you into a radio audience of yesteryear, (and) you’ll laugh a million laughs and smile a million smiles.”

Unfortunately, they come up about 999,998 smiles short.

The Arizona Rose Theatre Company obviously has a good PR director as well as a faltering, struggling script. Written, directed and produced by various members of the Howell family, “It’s Radio Time”—a play dedicated to the Golden Age of radio from 1920 to the early ’50s—tries to recreate an era of “sound only” entertainment. A time where the radio was the central (and biggest) object in the family living room. Where, as the playbill suggests, “families would gather at those special times during the week to listen to their favorite programs.”

Live radio shows—from programs like “The Shadow” and “Amos and Andy”—delivered drama, trivia, romance, on-the-street interviews, and a general sense of spontaneity and vivaciousness. The airwaves came alive whether the listener sat at home or in the studio audience. Despite his well-intentioned efforts, Director/writer Terry Howell fails to transfer this vitality to the stage. And what we are left with is a sugary-sweet, middle-class, white-wall-tire, ’50s sentimentality.

Unlike other “radio plays” that combine the two mediums (like Eric Bogosian’s smoke-filled, tension-riddled “Talk Radio”), Howell’s attempt lacks tension, passion and, most importantly, a plot. It is presented “ensemble-style,” and his talented cast summon their best efforts as they jump between stereotypical small-town characters and overdone, gimmicky skits.

The audience is never given any strong characters to cling to or any threads that weave through the script to provide continuity. Instead, Howell serves us Jack Benny puns (“Can a tuna open?”), red-neck hick ho-downs, prima donna Mafia-flappers straight out of “Guys and Dolls,” and a modified detective version of “Who’s on First?”.

The script also spreads itself too thin. It tries to include audience participation, thus creating the need for a long-winded prologue which introduces the nondescript characters while the audience fills out their “Radio Time” questionnaires. Members from the audience are beckoned on stage at three different points in the play, but the ensuing skits provide awkwardness without spontaneity. This interactive gimmick fails to draw the audience in.

Similarly, Howell’s use of anachronisms (references to “Jurassic Park,” Steven Spielberg and cellular phones) loosen up what was never a tight script in the first place. He underestimates his audience and assumes we can’t appreciate 1950s nostalgia. We would, however, value one time frame with a bit more originality.

At best, “It’s Radio Time” is a star-filled musical showcase. The cast far outshines the script, especially in the all male a cappella of “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now?”, the encompassing voice of Danielle Erin Rhodes, and the dynamic, tap dancing finale of George M. Cohan’s “Grand Old Flag.” Even writer and director Terry Howell proves his worth as a singer/songwriter in “People Helping People.”

At its lowest, this play is a two-hour commercial. The “radio commercials” plugged other Arizona Rose Theatre Company productions (“Tombstone: The Musical” and “Rainbow’s Magical Christmas”) and smacked of product placement.

Overall, Howell fails to successfully unite theater and radio. The “sound effects people” were the only realistic and fascinating part of the play, and here the audience experiences firsthand the creativity involved in reproducing “lifelike” sounds over the air (techniques which are also used in plays and movies). However, the presence of these “sound makers” stops the action on the stage. Theater is meant to be seen as well as heard. But the script isn’t interesting enough to fill in the gap.

The Arizona Rose Theatre Company’s philosophy is printed inside the playbill, part of which states that they “will only produce properties that are positive in nature or properties that have overall positive resolutions.” This is perhaps a good intention in today’s confusing world; however, “It’s Radio Time” doesn’t even attempt to provoke thought or insight.

The script is scattered and reduced to a musical pageant interrupted by cheap jokes and overdone ideas. And, perhaps to the theater company’s dismay, the sappy skit which lets audience members recount good deeds performed “for the right reason” and Howell’s “People Helping People” sermon makes you want to leave the theater cynical.

Rich, L.E. (1995, October 19). Radio play comes in fuzzy. Arizona Daily Wildcat.

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