During World War II, as soldiers endured the horrors of the battlefields, families back home gathered in front of their radios and listened to Nat King Cole, Louis Jordan, Ella Fitzgerald and the Mills Brothers sing the songs that helped a nation stay supportive and optimistic.
It is this glorious music that the National WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen celebrates in its next installment of “On the Air: A Live Radio Broadcast Musical.”
This upbeat production features a remarkable local cast and top-notch band that does justice to music written by such composers as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Richard Rogers, Johnny Mercer, and Frank Loesser.
The original “On the Air,” which looked at the inner workings of the fictional New Orleans radio station WSDC, premiered at the Stage Door Canteen in 2011.
That production, written by Victoria Reed and Sean Patterson, received three Big Easy Theater Award nominations.
In this sequel, Frank Dane (Tom Hook) WSDC’s station manager discovers Buddy Bordelon and Betty Lou, aka “Miss Streetcar,” have run off to Niagara Falls to get hitched.
Dane’s left with only himself and Melba Tompkins (Troi Bechet) to put on the Sunday show.
Luckily, father and son repairmen Nestor Watkins (Ron Flagge) and Nestor Jr. (Lloyd Meekins) come to the station to fix a broken Coca-Cola machine and stay to save the show. Along the way, there’s singing, dancing and even some romancing.
The script, by Cavan Hallman, has its moments. A powerful speech delivered by war veteran Nestor Jr. midway through the play is heartfelt and speaks to the courage and sacrifice made by all the men and women of the greatest generation. It left me wishing the storyline that helps set up these great songs had a bit more depth.
And certainly the size of the Canteen’s stage makes it more than challenging to place a five-piece band on it, but it’s a shame no one could figure out a way for the audience to see Hugh Dat and the Mystery Band.
Still, director Victoria Reed did her job admirably by casting the show with some very strong actors.
Newcomer Lloyd Meekins kicks off the show with one of Louis Jordan’s biggest hits, “Caldonia.” A Tulane student with more than a little resemblance to a young Nat King Cole, he brings enormous energy, heart and skill to Cole’s songs.
Hook is clearly having a grand time, and his renditions of Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” and Spike Jones’ “You Always Hurt the One You Love” are riotous good fun.
Troi Bechet completely owned her songs, from “Lover Man” to “Undecided,” and her harmonies added a powerful zing to all the songs she shared with others. And native New Orleanian Ron Flagge, who has appeared in numerous films and television, has a great voice and sells such songs as Jack McVea’s “Open the Door, Richard” perfectly.
Clearly the heart of the show is the music, and bandleader Jay Hagen gets stellar performances from band members Steve Braun, Chris Lacinak, Ray Moore and Pete Roze.
“On the Air: A Live Radio Broadcast Musical” does a great job sharing the music of the era, and if the story is thin, it doesn’t distract from the amazing work of a truly talented cast and a superior band.
And kudos to those who chose to shine the spotlight on the contributions African-Americans made not only to the war effort but also to the wonderful music of the era.