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