Aug. 4 2010 12:00 AM

Capitol TheaterWorks revives radio drama in 'Variety Show'

    One of the greatest strengths of Capital
    TheaterWorks is that its summer season is
    housed in the Ledges Playhouse. Those who
    know its history of ghosts and raccoons may
    disagree, but the fantastically creaky venue
    is perfect for some of TheaterWorks’ recent
    shows, including its current
    “1940’s Radio Variety Show.”

    Local theater groups have
    produced a couple of slick plays set during
    the golden era of radio drama, namely
    Lansing Community College’s
    “Adam’s Rib” and Williamston
    Theatre’s “It Came From
    Mars.” Audience members
    who saw either of those shows
    will be primed for the sets,
    costumes and snappy dialogue
    of “Variety Show.”

    Like those shows, a great
    deal of story develops around
    the personal dynamics of the
    performers. Stock characters
    include the mature diva (Tanya Burnham),
    an inexperienced ingénue (Katie Denyes),
    the gawky sound effects guy who carries a
    torch for the ingénue (Michael J. Mahoney),
    the charismatic leading man who has dallied
    with female peers (Shane Hagedorn),
    and the harried director (Bill Henson) who
    must ensure the show goes on.

    What sets “Variety Show” apart is that it
    utilizes actual radio drama scripts of the era.
    The behind-the-scenes plot is formulaic and
    predictable, but it’s a serviceable framework
    to hold the show together.

    The play will appeal most to an older
    audience that remembers and appreciates
    the power of radio drama. Act One features
    “My Friend Irma,” a successful radio
    series starring Marie Wilson that made the
    jump to television. The script is ho-hum,
    but Irma, as played by the character Betsy
    Bardel (who, in turn, is played by Angela
    Dill) is deliriously ditzy.

    “The Bickersons," which starred Don
    Ameche and Frances Langford, follows, and
    it gives Marni Darr Holmes and Henson a
    chance to shine as the couple that set the
    stage for “The Lockhorns.” In the age-old
    Venus and Mars conflict, it’s difficult to
    choose which partner is the more put-upon,
    as their 4 a.m. argument spirals into ridiculousness.

    Those too young to remember radio drama
    will realize its ability to create tension
    in Dill’s no-holds-barred performance of
    “The Mother-in-Law.” The piece, part of the
    “Lights Out” series overseen by Arch Oboler,
    is standard horror fare about a
    young wife driven to kill her
    mother-in-law. There is a terrific
    balance of horror and
    humor between Dill’s shrieking
    and Mahoney’s sniveling as
    the emasculated mama’s boy.
    The final piece, “Dick Kent,
    Private Eye,” allows Hagedorn
    to show off more than just his
    handsome face. As the behind-the-
    scenes plot thread closes
    like a noose around his throat, Hagedorn’s
    Skip Montgomery tries to stay on script as
    a stoic private dick while his co-stars sabotage
    his performance. Hagedorn plays the
    role well, balancing irritation with professionalism.

    “Variety Show,” while slow at times, is
    a pleasant immersion in the era when live
    radio drama was high entertainment. Don’t
    believe it? Try sitting through “The Motherin-
    Law” with your eyes closed. If Holmes’
    gravelly voice doesn’t set your spine a-tingling,
    perhaps one of the Ledges Playhouse
    ghosts will.

    ’1940s’ Radio Variety Show’

    Capitol TheaterWorks
    8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 6 and
    Saturday, Aug. 7; 2 p.m.
    Sunday, Aug. 8
    The Ledges Playhouse
    133 Fitzgerald Park Drive
    Grand Ledge