LAKE WALES – Movies and television have the ability to leave absolutely nothing to the imagination, as computer graphics allow filmmakers to create any illusion they want on the screen and assault the viewer with an amazing visual array.
Theater, on the other hand, is more about suggestion — and imagination. Lacking the ability to create what cinema can easily offer, theater asks its audience to visualize what can’t be seen on the stage.
Radio is entirely different, in that it has no visual component whatsoever. In the heyday of radio dramas, comedies, thrillers and westerns, the audience sitting in front of a radio in their living room had nothing at all visually to connect with – but instead were asked to take the words spoken by the actors and narrators and recreate the scene in their minds.
If cinema has had an easy time recreating stage plays and adding all that big screen grandeur that theaters don’t have – think of the difference between seeing a small community revival of “The Sound of Music” versus watching the 1965 movie version on a large screen cinema – then theater has an interesting advantage over radio, in that it does place the actors and sets right in front of the audience, as radio never could.
So what happens if you write a play about a radio production?
“The Big Guns” — which is subtitled “Whose Little Lily Is She?” – is a comedy by Andrew J. Fenady and Duke Fenady, set in the studio of The Radio Theatre of The Air. During a broadcast in June 1941, the station decides to shift away from its regular programming to do something special: a comedy western about a gal named Lily who comes riding into town one day wanting to know which of the two top fellas in town – Ready John or Big John – is her daddy. Prior to starting the show, the radio announcer, Raymond Edward Collins, introduces the audience to the cast that will be performing “The Big Guns,” and then the live program begins. There’s a commercial break in-between, of course, allowing the “studio” audience to take an intermission.
With a nicely designed set that includes the stand up microphones that the actors used in the radio studios, as well as those flashing “On The Air” and “Applause” signs, “The Big Guns” captures the look and feel of what it must have been like to have been in New York City in the 1940s and gotten tickets to watch actors perform one of those popular radio shows like “The Shadow,” “Suspense” or “The Green Hornet” as they were being done live.
The script, unfortunately, also presents some challenges for the theater company producing this play: namely, how do you keep it visually interesting and lively when the cast is mainly given the task of standing in front of a microphone and reading their lines?
Rob Fritz, the director of the production at the Lake Wales Little Theatre Inc., aims to solve that problem in a simple way: if you can’t get your cast to move around the stage a lot, then have them ham it up while they’re at the microphone. It mostly works, thanks to the comedic talents of performers like Jamie Adkinson, who plays Ready John in a squeaky, high-pitched voice that dilutes his character’s alleged masculinity and roughness, and Leslie Grondin and Pat Schatzas as the Crump Sisters, the town busy bodies who don’t care much for Lily invading their territory.
“The Big Guns,” as it turns out, was a substitute production. At the start of the production, Fritz explained to the audience that Lake Wales Little Theatre had originally been planning to produce the play “Jerry Finnegan’s Sister.”
“Unfortunately, life got in the way, and we couldn’t do that,” he said.
Then they discovered “The Big Guns” and went with that one, instead.
“This is a tribute to the Golden Age of radio,” Fritz said. “It’s an unusual type of show for us, but we think you’ll enjoy it. It’s great, great fun.”
It’s easy to see why they selected this one — it’s probably an easy production to put together, since it involves characters reading from a script in front of a microphone. Over the course of nearly two hours, though, sometimes the jokes work, and sometimes, not so much.
At times the production seems to drag, once you get past the concept of a stage play spoofing a radio play, and anyone who is too young to remember the golden age of radio might not fully appreciate what’s being done here. The jokes range from funny to corny to being as old-fashioned as radio programs themselves, but it helps when the cast members understand that the more visual humor t
hey bring to their roles, the better it works.
Most of the people in the audience this past weekend were seniors, and from start to finish, they roared with laughter. They got the nostalgic concept, and loved it. The Lake Wales Little Theatre truly does know its central audience, and in this production, not an entirely easy one to pull off, they did their best to make it entertaining even for those who think of radio as fairly serious political talk shows and FM oldies stations, and nothing more.
“The Big Guns” continues this weekend at the theater at 411 N. 3rd St. in downtown Lake Wales. Show times are Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m.
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