Provo Theatre Company’s quaint little revue “The Big KSL Holiday Broadcast” is an uncynical look back at the Golden Age of Radio (1926-1948, roughly).
For old people, it’s nostalgia, with re-enactments of classic radio shows like “Fibber McGee & Molly” and “The Jack Benny Show.” For everyone else, it’s a glimpse into a time when entertainment was much simpler and comedy wasn’t really very funny. (Maybe Jack Benny’s skits were funny then, and maybe people were just delighted at the prospect of having entertainment beamed into their own homes.)
Performed by three men, three women, a pianist and a sound-effects guy (Josh Gubler, who makes the noises live on stage with various props), the show focuses on the music of the era. Shane Wright sings a whammo “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-Ness,” and Jen Ballif’s sultry “Stormy Weather” is a heart-melter.
While most of the songs feature two or more singers in near-perfect harmony, everyone gets a solo, too and everyone sells these classic songs with great talent and energy. The beautiful Amy Ashworth cheers up the troops with “He’s 1-A in the Army” and “Accentuate the Positive” (she also has powers to make an ad for catsup — pronounced “cat-sup” — sound sexy); Dianna Graham belts out “Blow Gabriel Blow” like nobody’s biz-ness; Daniel Law is used more in the comedy bits (he does Will Rogers and Jack Benny) but solos in “Go Tell It on the Mountain”; and a charming Spencer Barnes sings “Brother Can You Spare a Dime.” Even the pianist, Ross Boothe — who is amazing in that capacity, making the piano sound as rich as a full band — strums guitar and sings “Pastures of Plenty.”
All of this makes me jealous of how great popular music was in the first half of the 20th century. They had Gershwin, Porter and Berlin, whose songs had catchy melodies and whose lyrics actually rhymed, and I’m stuck hearing the same infernal Red Hot Chili Peppers song over and over again on the radio.
Where the show stumbles — nay, falls flat on its face — is in the dramatic re-enactments. As we’re whisked through time from 1927 to 1946, we hear radio news reports of Charles Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic, the start of the Great Depression, and the end of World War II. We also, unfortunately, are subjected to some weird melodrama, watching onlookers react to seeing the Hindenberg explode, for example, while we hear the actual “Oh, the humanity!” radio clip. The transition is too abrupt: “We’re swing-dancing and having fun! And, oh, whoops, the Hindenberg exploded, hundreds are dead. And now we’re dancing again!”
Even more dreadfully maudlin is the scene in which Dianne Graham is a mother being informed that her son has died in the war. She breaks down and sobs, as you might expect — but again, with no clue who these characters are, no connection to their lives, and no warning that we’re about to go from upbeat nostalgia to depressing melodrama, the whole scene is embarrassing and unwatchable.
A little retooling, though, and collaborators Tim Threlfall and Dean Hughes will have a new Christmas tradition well worth visiting again and again. Close your eyes during the awkward parts, and enjoy the music.
One of the old radio stories retold here is "The Little Match Girl," a highly depressing story in which a poverty-stricken girl must support her family by selling matches on the street. Unable to sell any, and freezing cold, she burns one for heat, which prompts a hallucination of happiness. She burns another one, and another, seeking more delusions, until she has burned all the matches and then freezes to death. Hurrah and merry Christmas!