Monday, April 5, 2010

Theater review: Nostalgic 'Dr. Radio' slight but entertaining

Wayne LeGette as Benji Weitz in Dr. Radio.

By Hap Erstein

Composer-lyricist-musical director Christopher McGovern has been involved with most of the musicals at Florida Stage in the last few years, including writing songs in period style to complement the hits associated with Ginger Rogers (Backwards in High Heels) and Jimmy Cagney (Cagney!).

But with the exception of a site-specific mini-musical penned to be performed in a bowling alley for a company fund-raiser, he had yet to have an entire original score showcased at the Manalapan theater. Until now, with the charming, but slight new show, Dr. Radio.

McGovern and his frequent collaborator, director-writer Bill Castellino, were given a slot in Florida Stage’s season based on a rough outline of a musical about a radio repair shop, its nostalgic proprietor and radios that burst to life in song. As they wrote the show, the story got filled in with specifics, but the initial concept remains intact.

The resulting show is slim, but serviceable stuff, and not just because Dr. Radio runs a mere 80 minutes, without an intermission. Still, McGovern’s songs are witty, tuneful and character-driven and performed with gusto by a five-member cast, all South Florida residents. As Florida Stage has grown in national stature, it has been increasingly rare for it to draw all of its performers from the area acting pool.

McGovern and Castellino spin the saga of a guy named Benjamin Weitz (amiable Wayne LeGette), who is closing up his repair shop on New York’s Lower East Side. It is not because radios have become outmoded -- as was once feared when televisions first arrived in homes -- but because few listeners bother to get them fixed anymore when they break down.

Before he leaves his store -- ingeniously designed by Tim Mackabee -- to move in with his grown daughter in the New Jersey suburbs, Benji thinks back on his life in the neighborhood, conjuring up his personal history in the form of an old-time radio drama that does indeed come to life, with characters that keep breaking into song and dance.

In his mind’s eye, he recalls an avaricious bank owner (Irene Adjan, relishing the comically wicked assignment), her Latin dance instructor lapdog (Nick Duckart, a revelation after so many dramatic roles), a Hungarian tea leaf reader (aptly madcap Elizabeth Dimon, though her character is nearly superfluous) and a new arrival named Kate (charming, full-voiced Margot Moreland), who takes an instant dislike to Benji and, naturally as these things go, begins falling in love with him.

Margot Moreland and Elizabeth Dimon in Dr. Radio.

As characters go, Dr. Radio has plenty to fill a show twice its length, but most seem underutilized in the wafer-thin plot. Benji’s memories take him back to the late 1940s, which strains mathematical credulity on occasion, but this is not a show where much logic need to applied. Just go along with its whimsical spirit and perhaps you will arrive at the misty-eyed point the show’s creators have in mind.

If not, you will not be alone, but you can still enjoy McGovern’s hummable score, full of sprightly numbers that wink at musical theater traditions without being consumed by them. McGovern has us from Benji’s opening number, I Will Help You Sing Again, crooned to a radio he is repairing, as well as his duet with Kate (There’s Nothing Wrong With Things The Way They Are), which plays on their opposing views of the then-modern age. Dimon gets a wacky tour de force solo and is part of an intricate climactic séance sequence.

It is all entertaining stuff, but the mind soon wanders, wondering what McGovern and Castellino could come up with if they wrote a musical with the dramatic teeth of some of Florida Stage’s hard-hitting dramas, rather than simply filling this light chance-of-pace slot.

Dr. Radio is an enjoyable diversion, but one gets the impression that the theater believes that is all musicals can, or should, be.

DR. RADIO. Florida Stage, 262 South Ocean Blvd., Manalapan. Through Sunday, May 2. Tickets: $45-$48. Call: (561) 585-3433 or (800) 514-3837.

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