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Homespun humor and music with Radio Gals

Pass the popcorn

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Radio Gals: Miss Mabel Swindle (Greg Dixon, left), Hazel Hunt (Jo Brown) and Miss Azilee Swindle (Brent Wilson) - PHOTO BY STUART WAGNER
  • Photo by Stuart Wagner
  • Radio Gals: Miss Mabel Swindle (Greg Dixon, left), Hazel Hunt (Jo Brown) and Miss Azilee Swindle (Brent Wilson)

Radio Gals

Raleigh Little Theatre
Through June 22

During the intermission of Radio Gals, veteran Raleigh stagehound Rod Rich put it this way: "Some movies you go to for the popcorn."

He's right, of course. And I'll admit it: Somewhere in that Big Book of (Artistic) Judgment it's already been recorded that, on a rare afternoon off last weekend when I had the chance to see Elio Germano in the Italian indie My Brother is an Only Child, I opted for Harrison Ford instead.

Sooner or later, I'm probably gonna pay for that one.

We know this: Junk food just wouldn't be junk food if it tasted bad. And maybe, at the first, damnation is sweet—when, that is, it isn't salty and chewy with just a little bit of crunch. Yes, it says what it says about our culture: Not only can we cultivate a palate for it, for most, it's a fait accompli well before kindergarten.

However. As much as our inner Puritan would like to, we can't entirely relegate popcorn to the Realms Below. Through a series of childhood Saturday matinees, my Aunt Jetty would solemnly remind me—at the very moment she'd break into a mischievous grin—"Eat up. It's r-r-roughage."

No, dietary fiber usually has nothing at all to do with haute cuisine, but it's pretty cool that under certain circumstances, it still can be an awful lot of fun. Particularly when served with a little bit of butter and salt.

Those are pretty much my thoughts on Radio Gals, the 1993 musical now playing at Raleigh Little Theatre. Its co-creators, Mike Craver and the late Mark Hardwick, come from a constellation of string-band and old-time music aficionados only one or two degrees of separation removed from the Red Clay Ramblers, that new vaudeville juggernaut with historically deep local roots. Since the 1970s this clan and its colleagues have penned a series of largely feel-good, folksy projects like Pump Boys and Dinettes, Oil City Symphony, King Mackerel and the Blues are Running, Diamond Studs and Lone Star Love (known through its infinitely long development as The Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas). Predictably, Radio Gals doesn't ever stray too far from down-home.

The time's the late 1920s—but, as the program quickly reassures us, not too close to the Crash of '29—and the locale is the sweetly fictive town of Cedar Ridge, Arkansas; a place that, if it existed, would look radically different once disastrous agricultural stewardship, drought and punishing winds ushered in the dustbowl of the 1930s.

But that's then. This comes well before, on a sunny morning in the heartland, as retired music teacher Hazel Hunt ventures into the parlor of her Victorian-era home, goes over to where the pump organ used to sit, and flips the switch on her pride and joy, a gleaming Western Electric 500-watt radio transmitter. Then she calmly starts another broadcast day from the front room of her house, with solicitous inquiries into one neighbor's hogs and another's irregularity.

The many musical interludes come from some of her former students, an all-girl house band called the Hazelnuts, fronted by the flamboyant Gladys Fritts, part-time psychic and full-time man-hunter. They intone everything from old-sounding hymns ("Royal Radio") and exotic toe-tappers ("Edna Jones, the Elephant Girl") to the radio test pattern ("Testing, testing, one, two, three") in achingly sweet four-part harmony. In the midst, occasional plugs for Horehound Compound, a certified patent medicine ginned up in a still out back.

The plot's conflict comes in at about six-foot-one, on a motorcycle, wearing a three-piece suit: O.B. Abbott, an inspector from a predecessor to the FCC, investigating charges that Hunt has been broadcasting randomly all across the radio dial—wave-jumping to clear channels whenever other stations' signals start to interfere. At stake: Hunt's radio license, which had been given to her upon retirement by the mayor on behalf of a grateful town. Simpler times, indeed.

Once it comes out that Abbott has a more than serviceable tenor, everybody knows exactly where this show is going. Fortunately, the route it takes and our traveling companions along the way are amusing.

Full marks go to music director Greg Dixon, who appears along with veteran Brent Wilson on stage in drag, on keys and bass respectively, as those musical dowagers, the Swindle Sisters. I've been a fan of Rose Martin ever since she signed, sealed and delivered that Patsy Cline musical several seasons back; here her high spirits as a soprano doubling on the drum kit are infectious. Susan Burcham sells the silliest songs as that addled seer and huckster, Swami G. In the midst, Jo Brown's Hazel and Katie Hennenlotter's precocious, easily mortified violinist named America try to lend the whacked-out proceedings at least a modicum of dignity. Director Haskell Fitz-Simons keeps this theatrical train on time and on track.

No less an authority on radio and homespun entertainment than Garrison Keillor has observed that Mike Craver has "this amazing ability to write songs of a period that are so perfect and so exact, almost better than the originals." I must concur. The songs in Radio Gals are pitch-perfect little nuggets of Americana, lovingly crafted to sound like long ago, delivered here with full fidelity by folks who care enough to do them justice.

This show attempts to solve no world problem more pressing than a certain lonesomeness, of long duration, in a human heart or two. It sings a few songs and cracks a few good jokes along the way. Then it's sign-off time.

It's popcorn, in short. But the funny thing is: Sometimes that's exactly what you need.

E-mail Byron Woods at bwoods@indyweek.com.

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