The Open Air Theatre at Washington Crossing State Park is fighting some heavy battles this summer. In addition to an overabundance of rain which washed out a number of shows, the Theatre is struggling with the Division of Parks over space rental, which, if raised to the amount recommended by the state, would preclude a number of the local theater companies from performing there. This summer the Open Air Theatre needed to demonstrate high audience figures to justify their existence to the Division of Parks. Mother Nature did not help in that regard; there were a number of rain-outs this summer, but it also was an unfortunate season for the Theatre to close its performance year with two relatively unknown shows. Last week's My Way Sinatra revue was reasonably well attended, perhaps because of familiarity with the Sinatra tunes. However, the final presentation of the Theatre, Radio Gals, is so far off the beaten track that it may have done more harm than good to the Open Air Theatre's cause.
Radio Gals, created in the mid-1990s by Mark Craver and Mark Hardwick, is a small ensemble cast production set in the 1920s in a living room/radio studio in rural Arkansas. There is a very skimpy plot; the show seems to be primarily a vehicle on which to hang period songs and dances. The timeframe covers a one-day period during which Hazel Hunt broadcasts (somewhat illegally) a continuous radio show with whatever and whoever walks in the door. This show has primarily made the rounds in regional theater; its off-Broadway run in 1999 was very short-lived. The cast is almost exclusively female, and with a weak structure to the play itself, it is up to the cast to generate most of the energy. In Thursday's opening night production by Hedgerow Theatre, some of the cast members were indeed capable of moving the show along despite its weaknesses.
Opening night at the Open Air Theatre is often a chance to finalize technical details, and when Hazel Hunt, played by Susan Wefel, came onstage, it was apparent that some microphone issues needed to be refined. Ms. Wefel, like her castmates, fed almost constant energy into her role. She was quickly joined by her "Hazelnuts," five women who banded together as a pick-up "radio orchestra," and for this production were led by Music Director Helen Clark (playing the role of Miss Azilee Swindle) and drummer Daniel Frost as the cousin Dorcus. One item missed in Hedgerow's production was the fact that Ms. Swindle, hiding from the law with her "sister" Mabel Swindle, were conceived, as in Some Like it Hot, as two performers in drag. Although that detail was absent from this production, Ms. Clark and Pam Monaco, (Mabel Swindle) displayed an incredible amount of musical talent between them, including accompanying all of the numbers on the piano and bringing out instruments ranging from a mandolin to a clarinet for musical back-up.
This show also found its musical strength in the ensemble numbers. With an all-female cast, there were numerous opportunities for Andrews Sister-type harmonies, and the tuning of the women was by and large pretty solid. The arrival of Gladys Fritts (Micki Sharpe, by far the strongest performer in the cast) added a very reliable alto to the mix, as she played a character who is part Carol Channing and part Carol Burnett. Two of the more energetic performers were Marilien Mogendorff (Rennabelle) and Gabrielle Enriquez (America) both of whom sang with a lot of spirit and easy reach to the higher registers. Newton Buchanan as a pre-FCC investigator demonstrated a good tenor voice and interaction with the rest of the cast.
The cast must be given a lot of credit for keeping the energy in the show going, since little could come from the songs or plot. Hedgerow Theatre presented this show earlier in the spring at its home base in Media, Pennsylvania to mixed reviews. Hedgerow has a solid reputation and a number of theater awards, and can probably afford to have a weak show every now and again. The Open Air Theatre, however, with its current battle to maintain its existence in the park, might have done better to close with a more familiar show and bolster their audiences going into next year.
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