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Hedgerow's 'Boogie Woogie Radio Hour': Look back to 1940s radio

"The Boogie Woogie Radio Hour," through Jan. 28 at the Hedgerow Theatre, is a fond look back at 1940s small-town radio stations, their music, and their communities. It features a couple dozen great tunes from the midcentury American songbook, and while there's not much at stake, it's a genial if inexpert two hours' entertainment.

(Left to right:) Sarah J. Gafgen, Carl Smith, and Shaun Yates in “The Boogie Woogie Radio Hour,” through Jan. 28 at the Hedgerow Theatre.
(Left to right:) Sarah J. Gafgen, Carl Smith, and Shaun Yates in “The Boogie Woogie Radio Hour,” through Jan. 28 at the Hedgerow Theatre.Read moreAshley LaBonde

Live, old-time radio can make for good theater. Tension is intrinsic (as I, an old radio guy, can attest): You have to keep an eye on the clock, and everyone goes in mortal terror of dead air. Plus, all sorts of things go on that the audience will never know, lending dramatic irony to what's actually heard.

Lately we've seen a lot of live radio on stage. We've had It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play at the Walnut Street Theatre, and A Christmas Carol: A Live Radio Play at the Resident Theatre Company in West Chester. Last year's Buddy Holly Story at the Bucks County Playhouse and the Perelman Theater featured stretches in the broadcast booth, as did Rock and Roll Man: The Alan Freed Story at Bucks County. The Hedgerow Theatre's innocent, nostalgic revue Boogie Woogie Radio Hour (through Jan. 28) is the latest entrant in the genre, and while there's really not much tension in it, it is a fond look back at small-time local radio stations, broadcasting to communities of which they played an important part.

We come upon the three-person staff of station WBGW in Texas as they take down Christmas decorations. It's 1948, the station's 10th anniversary, and a big bash is planned soon for the high school gym. The local Radio Club has wired the gym for broadcast, the show is a sellout, and big-time talent from New York is on its way by train to take part. Sound like the set-up for dozens of 1940s wacky comedies and musicals? Are you saying to yourself, "Something's about to go wrong"? Well, right.

We meet Patsy, played with smiling goodwill by Sarah J. Gafgen, who also wrote the show. Her real-life husband, Carl Nathaniel Smith, plays Roy, and Shaun Yates plays Billy Clayton, the busy, fretful DJ whose strongest expletive, often uttered, is "Oh, gee!" Stetsons off to Smith and Yates, true Texans with true Texas twangs. These three are both workmates and longtime friends. And they are much in the singing mood: In the first 15 minutes we're treated to "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," "Puttin' on the Ritz," "Sentimental Journey," and "Toot, Toot, Tootsie!" A couple dozen more midcentury American songbook tunes will follow. Gafgen has a full, warm voice, much the best of the three; the two others sing gamely along.

By the end of Act 1, boom: The New York talent gets stuck in St. Louis snow. The high school boys' basketball team wins, meaning there's a playoff game in the gym the night of the show; WGBW must move to the auditorium. And when the music, costumes, and scripts arrive, they're for the wrong show.

Guess who has to do that show? Correct. Two high school kids do help out, played with indestructible smiles by Joseph Colasante and Gracie Guerin. Their commercials for sponsors Campbell Soup and Coca-Cola are sweet.

There's nothing much at stake; all is good-natured. The dancing is living-room style, the singers get through the tunes (with Gafgen, as mentioned, a cut above, especially in "Stormy Weather"), and the tunes themselves, their fine lyrics and indelible melodies, are enjoyable if not expertly done. It's rather like a sing-along with your grandparents.