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theater: Musical Flashback

Though it blasts audiences back to the 1940s, the climate in the Barksdale's latest is similar to ours today.

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Though one shouldn't push the parallels with today's news too far, it's almost impossible not to think of them during this Barksdale production of a musical revue that first opened on Broadway in 1979. Right now, there probably aren't many trumpet players named Biff (Matt Shofner) abandoning gigs for a tour of duty on the other side of the world. But a familiar sense of momentous events nonetheless lingers in the air.

The show takes place in real time as an installment of "The Mutual Manhattan Variety Cavalcade." Before it goes on the air, the production staff and performers filter into the studio. Pops (Curtis Morrisette) takes bets on the studio phone, ditzy blonde Ginger Brooks (Shannon Watson) unknowingly rehearses without her dress, crooner Johnny Cantone (Larry Cook) arrives with a lady on each arm, cab driver/comic Neil Tilden (Ford Flannagan) maneuvers for a better job and the greasy host of the show, Clifton A. Feddington (Joe Pabst), rants and raves with little observable effect.

Playwright Walton Jones devotes the opening 30 minutes to some clumsy attempts at characterization. Later, we'll learn more about Johnny by the way he handles his cigarette case than anything in the setup. But it's easy to forgive the opening because we know the music is just around the corner.

After Clifton announces to radio listeners that the show is being broadcast from the Algonquin Room at the Hotel Astor, things get moving quickly. Musical Director Elliot Bromley leads a well-formed five-piece band through some of the more popular hits of the era.

The consistently good musical performances (with choreography by K Strong) are interrupted by a number of humorous commercials ("Boy do I need a laxative"). There are also several comedy skits including a rendition of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" with genuine sound-effect gimmickry.

Director Susan Sanford has added some nice details to the show. Choreographing the incessant gum chewing was a task all by itself. And there's a nice piece of stage direction that takes place through the character of bobby-soxer Connie Miller (Audra Honaker). Though Honaker is exceedingly charming during her song-and-dance numbers, also keep an eye on her when she is not the focus of the show. Perhaps Connie missed out on the summer of '42, but the winter has opened her eyes to new sensations. In the background, she dreamily makes eyes at Johnny as she repels the advances of B. J. Gibson (Scott Wichmann). She's even more fascinating when she silently observes and mimics the moves of the more experienced women in the show: the smoky worldliness of Ann (Samantha Brannon), the vroom-vroom sexuality of Ginger and the forceful virtuosity of Geneva (Shantell Dunnaville).

When Johnny unexpectedly relinquishes the spotlight, Wichmann takes command of the show. He draws not only the attention of the audience but also the instant adoration of Connie. The moment is all the more engaging because of Honaker's work in the background.

This is the second straight year that Court Watson has designed scenery at the Barksdale for a nighttime location in New York during the Christmas season. His oak-colored set, like his design for "Fully Committed" last year, provides a jolt of Big Apple electricity to the show. And Liz Hopper's costumes from the period made me wish for a national day that would require everyone to wear authentic clothes from the 1940s.

With top-notch performances of songs like "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," "Chattanooga Choo-Choo" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," it's impossible not to like the show. Zoom back in time 60 years, forget your problems (and the turmoil in the world) for a couple of hours, and leave the theater with a smile. Radio has never been more vivid. S



"The 1940's Radio Hour" is playing at Barksdale Theatre, 1601 Willow Lawn Drive., through Dec. 29. Tickets cost $24-$30. Call 282-2620.

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