By Tina Arth
Never having been exposed to Ralph Radio Theatre, I had no idea what to expect from the group’s 2018 offering – but since it was playing just down the road at the Alpenrose Dairy Opera House I decided to give it a shot. As a Christmas musical, the show falls somewhere in the middle – a few strong vocalists, lots of good harmony, and the fine accompaniment by the Dreamfire Express Band more than compensate for a few wobbly moments. However, in its role as a Christmas tribute to the troops and those who remained stateside during WWII, the show leads the pack. Author Pat Kruis Tellinghusen finds a beautiful balance between the now campy humor of 1940s radio technique, advertising, and general schmaltz and the heart-breaking reality of the human face of war.
Maybe the show’s powerful effect on me is partly due to its timing – I saw it on a day of national mourning for Bush 41, which had already revived powerful memories of my own dad’s service in WWII. However, I think even without those stimuli I would have responded to the story of how Kenny Saito and his family lost everything when they were “relocated” to Minidoka, the message left on the airman’s grave on Kiska, and many other touching moments.
Like most “live radio” productions, the show is done in real time – radios don’t just go silent so the audience can spend 15 minutes in the lobby of the theater. Led by emcee (and actual radio veteran) John Hugill, the cast delivers 90 minutes of songs, some from the era and some traditional Christmas tunes, led off by the poignant and topical “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” The musical numbers are punctuated by a series of vignettes, some from a very Portland point of view – Vanport housing, rivalries between Lincoln and Wilson High Schools, ration coupons from Laurelhurst, and the reaction of locals to the relocation of friends and neighbors of Japanese heritage. The more somber moments are leavened by the cast’s wonderful advertising spots – Teel Tooth Cleanser, Woodbury Facial Soap, Lifesavers, and of course everyone’s favorite, Camel Cigarettes.
Some things to watch for include the lovely little waltz number with Chuck Weed and Robin Michaels, Daniel Rhovan (pretty much any time he’s on the microphone, with his mobile face and equally mobile speaking voice – and in his spare time he makes a fine Foley artist), David Connelly’s monologue, and Emily Smith’s vocal solos. Jennifer Gallagher’s amazing eyes and musical versatility (who plays the mandolin these days!?) are equally mesmerizing.
A few of the show’s extras merit special mention. First, producer/Director Kimberly Poe has designed a first-class program – so many detailed touches and genuine period images that I’ll actually hang on to it as a keepsake. Second, the colorful and authentic women’s costumes contrast brilliantly with the sober precision of the men’s authentic military uniforms. Finally, bandleader/vocal director Cary Buchanan and his 6 musicians deliver a big-band feel that works beautifully in that great barn of an opera house!
Ralph Radio Theatre’s 1943 Christmas From Home plays at the Alpenrose Dairy Opera House, 6149 SW Shattuck Road, Portland with 7:30 performances December 8th, 14th, and 15th – not too many more chances to go!