By Cory Bilicko
Long Beach Playhouse’s Lutz Radio Hour is a perfect holiday show for audiences who like a strong dose of nostalgia infused into their seasonal entertainment. Unfortunately, those seeking an engaging plot, distinctive character goals or refined storytelling should stay home and watch It’s a Wonderful Life.
Set on Christmas Eve in 1947 in the studios of Los Angeles radio station LUTZ, The Lutz Radio Hour is broadcasting its final show before the station converts to television. To the dismay of cast and crew, an extremely overbearing television director (Bob Fetes), with requisite megaphone, beret and knee-high boots, is there to begin “directing” the performers to determine who has what it will take to make the transition onto “the boob tube.”
With the exception of some merriment spilling over into the recording studio from a Christmas party in another room, the staff and on-air talent are doing a pretty good job of putting on a successful show while having some holiday fun, but their biggest obstacle to both is that director fellow.
Seemingly on the verge of explosion from beginning to end, he continuously weaves himself in and out of the performances, literally getting in the way and even trampling some of the cast members. (Were it not 1947, we might have thought the culprit to be too much Red Bull in the eggnog.)
It would be easier to accept such a one-note character if we understood his intentions; but, considering the fact that he’s played so broadly and that, script-wise, there doesn’t seem to be much context provided for him anyway, he just comes off as annoying. Perhaps he is supposed to be the embodiment of just how harsh and abrasive the onset of television would be to these radio performers who’d gotten so comfortable and proficient at providing entertainment to their devoted listeners. On another level too, he does give the characters something to fight against– some semblance of conflict. Otherwise, this show would have just been a revue of sorts, which, considering the impressive musical and acting chops of its cast, might have been a better idea.
At the beginning of the play, everything is in place for an entertaining holiday-themed show: the set is superbly appointed with just the right mix of period “stuff” and era-appropriate Christmas decorations; the charismatic actors really do look as if they’ve just stepped out of a 1940s film; and the story’s premise (post-war Americans facing an identity crisis of sorts in the wake of a huge technological change) just seethes with potential. But, despite the entertaining musical numbers (by a delightful Anna Kate Mohler and a love-to-hate-him David Kramer), charming personalities (cute pixie Kalinda Gray, likeable gal-next-door Michelle Murphy, sirenic Jamie Sowers) and some absolutely top-notch performances (Skip Blas, Mitch Nunn and Dolores Kimble, who are all so authentic, they almost seem like holograms created from clips of old movies), the Hour goes downhill fast. The staging is confusing and haphazard, especially the extended shtick involving pages of the script flying all over the place. (Perhaps those pages were the script for this production rather than that of the fictional radio show?) It’s always a tragedy when such talent is wasted.
The strange thing is: I still enjoyed it! There’s an undeniable appeal to the nostalgia of it all. To be honest, if given the opportunity to see Lutz Radio Hour again next year with the same cast on the same set with the same hair, make-up and costumes, I’d see it– provided the story (especially the second half) was reworked to flesh out the characters and deliver on its potential, the stage direction rethought to make more sense and the antics reined in.
I suppose a good way to sum it all up is to relate a moment after the performance last Saturday night: as my guest and I left the theatre, before I’d had time to intellectualize what I’d just seen, I still had that special Christmas-y feeling that a good holiday movie or live show will imbue in those of us who are seeking it. Yet, all my friend had to say was, “I didn’t get it.”
Lutz Radio Hour will continue to have its final radio show through Sunday, Dec. 27 at the Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E. Anaheim St., with Friday and Saturday performances at 8pm and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm. Visit lbplayhouse.com or call (562) 494-1014.