Arts » The Arts

Hit the Road to Dreamland

Top-shelf Swingin’ takes you back to the Golden Age of radio

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Pop quiz: If you love Swingin’ on a Star—an enactment of a 1942 musical radio revue, complete with songs, commercials, skits, and serial thrillers—does that mean you’re getting old?

Answer: “It ain’t ne-ce-sarily-so-oh.”

The humor, for one thing, is happily juvenile. Don Kukla, the show’s writer and director, must know some 11-year-olds. ( Example: A customer in a café changes her soup order from chicken to pea and the waiter yells back to the cook: “Hold that chicken and make it pee!”) But the songs that are the main attraction of this show can make you feel nostalgic. “Summertime” is here, and “Papa Loves Mambo,” and “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got that Swing” and “I Got You Under My Skin” and all sorts of great tunes from the’40s, wonderfully executed. Nostalgia is only part of the draw, though; thrilling musicianship is the rest of it. “Sing, Sing, Sing” (which has no singing) features some fabulous drumming by Rich Brinkman, which, like Jodi Marshall’s “Bubble Boogie,” spins on the satisfying edge of control.

The Cosmopolitan Caravan Orchestra—the show’s 11-piece ensemble, directed by John Combs—is perfectly suited to the dimensions of the Starlight Ballroom, Missoula Elks Lodge 383, famous for its twirling silver ball. Singers Don Semmens, Stacey Gordon, Don Kukla, and Eden Atwood are in each case absolutely competent—awesomely so, in the case of Atwood, “whom critics call one of the best young singers on the scene today.” Those words serve double duty in the show. As pronounced by a flawlessly weird Will Tilton (announcer and stage manager), in the faux-urban accents peculiar to the early days of American media, the words pull us back to the ’40s. But insofar as they describe the real Eden Atwood, they bring this radio show right into our own living room.

It’s a clever device that runs all through the show. The commercial bits, written by Kukla and Combs, advertise real establishments in Missoula, operating here and now. Somehow this transcends simple crowd pleasing. The ads are in the hammy style of early radio, but they are also true to the contemporary taste for self-deprecation in advertising that assumes a smartly ironical audience. The somewhat pretentious name of Shadows Keep serves as inspiration for a wildly raucous Python-esque routine. The occupation of Mike McCullough!! ... Reeealtor (pronounced in swooning fashion) carries the glamour of a private eye. Loken Builders evokes something along the lines of the Starship Enterprise. More prosaically, Pierce Flooring saves the day for desperate daughters-in-law, a service they’ve provided since 1924.

ver, incorporated-right-into-the-script promotion paid a good price—if so, they got their money’s worth. It doesn’t feel obnoxious, like product endorsements do. It’s not cute, as local references in summer theater productions can be. It doesn’t demonstrate a disorienting civic zeal, as when the mayor plays Glinda the Good Witch, or whatever the heck has been going on in some community productions lately. Nope—it’s art, in that it spans the distance between the show and the audience in an artful way.

“It’s modern, this project is very, very modern!” So the husband in the Thompson Remodeling ad says to his wife as he ineptly wreaks havoc on their house. In Swingin’ on aStar the structural tinkering works. There’s a friendly dissolution of the barrier between the performers and the audience that doesn’t feel forced (and no dreaded singalongs). This show has a genuinely lighter touch than Swingtime Canteen or The 1940s Radio Hour, other fine local productions set during WWII. It’s staged more casually, the singers read lyric sheets and pretend to plug their ears to get their pitch. There is no plot, really, and while the dramatic device of an old-fashioned radio show holds up, it doesn’t dominate. Except for an off-kilter interlude when the orchestra launches into the theme song for each of the armed forces, the emotion of the music is allowed to take on a contemporary cast (by then we’re feeling fine enough to go along with the military moment).

The high point in this generally top-notch show might be when Will Tilton’s character is forced to croon an impromptu tune. As the sound effects man, he’s been over to the side all night making wah-wah noises into tin buckets. As the announcer, he’s been elocuting madly in that odd, old-fashioned way (“The Caravan Comedy Spotlight again casts its glow upon the funny bone!”). As the stage manager, he’s been making minor adjustments here and there, including on his own person (pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose in a quick little tic), and scurrying around the Elks during intermission—in character, like Andy Kaufman. We’re to believe he can’t find the principles and the show is on the air. He has to sing himself. He warms to the occasion with an admirable economy of gesture, transforming from sideman to star. He doesn’t sing a parody of a song, he gives us a real one, with a lovely delivery. This works to transform the real stars into sidemen and women, in the best sense. We remember that stars of radio were mostly faceless pros, a sort of musical infantry. We want to join the ranks. So when Eden Atwood next performs “I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you,” we see ourselves up there singing.

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